Since her Metropolis EP landed in 2007, the unconventional pop entity and visionary “alien from outer space, cybergirl without a face” known as Janelle Monáe, has been trying to tell us about the world of tomorrow. Self-proclaimed time travelers attempting to save us from ourselves might be a joke phenomenon, but Dirty Computer is the future fable we need in today’s troubled, Trumpian times. As Monáe declared in her unequivocal 2018 Grammy speech – “We come in peace, but we mean business.”
After five years of acting and activism, including star turns in Hidden Figures and the Oscar winning Moonlight, Monáe’s third official full-length offering, Dirty Computer, arrives in glorious widescreen technicolor. It’s an audio/visual concept album that details a near-future narrative set in a totalitarian society, where Monáe plays an outlaw figure rejected from society because her internal circuit board has been corrupted, rendering her ‘dirty’ - basically she’s a liberated rebel, a glitch in the Matrix, a “young, black, wild and free” Neo. “I think it speaks to where we are right now,” Monáe explained to Rolling Stone, “and what we’ve gone through recently as black millennials, and as women, and as Americans."
Monáe’s previous albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, have felt like cinematic epics, so it’s no surprise that, like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Dirty Computer comes with it’s own 50-minute Afrofuturist “emotion picture” movie (it’s unclear if this is an album that comes with a movie or a movie that comes with an album or if there’s a difference either way). Monáe has been ahead of the curve with her visuals and penchant for science-fiction, having previously referenced everything from Fritz Lang to Philip K. Dick in her work. Dirty Computer takes these influences to the next level, throwing in additional nods to everything from secret Chechnyan prisons, Vibranium, Barack Obama and the work of artist Wangechi Mutu (she's been kind enough to include a guide to the album’s inspirations by typing “I am a dirty computer” into this interactive website). With Black Panther bringing Afrofuturism to the masses, it was with a gesture of solidarity that the trailer for Dirty Computer was initially shown before selected cinema screenings of the Marvel movie (if there’s any justice in this world, they’ll ask Monáe to curate the next Black Panther soundtrack).
This time around Monáe’s stories are still wrapped in futurist narratives, but the messages are streamlined. Thematically, Dirty Computer is a manifesto about love, black excellence, girl power, freedom, respect, otherness, sex-positivity, and queer-friendly utopianism. Monáe has conceived an album for the marginalized, fueled by love that doesn’t see difference as a flaw but instead marvels at the beauty of imperfection.
Although Monáe has previously dealt with similar themes (lyrical references to electricity are also still in abundance), her work has always been high concept but operating at a disconnect. Monáe has felt like the kind of artist you want to love but couldn’t quite get close to, an alienation resulting from her overly complicated android alter-egos. But on Dirty Computer we learn that the Kansas girl isn’t the ArchAndroid tin man after all; she has feelings, desires and a beating heart. In this respect, Dirty Computer surpasses Monáe’s past work in both its intent and delivery, and that’s largely because it’s not afraid to be explicit. In fact, if you take what Monáe told the New York Times at face value, the album might be the most unadulterated version of Janelle Monáe we’ve seen - “I knew I needed to make this album and I put it off and put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe.”
Ushering in a new era of openness for Monáe, Dirty Computer is simultaneously her most confident and intimate offering to date, as she sings on “Make Me Feel”, “It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender.” The contrast runs through the entire album, from “So Afraid”’s declarations of vulnerability (“I’m fine in my shell/I’m afraid of it all”), to “Django Jane”’s fearless battle cry against the threats Monáe perceives being made against her rights as “a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades,” as she told The Guardian.
In fact, Monáe’s rap game is one of Dirty Computer’s biggest takeaways. Whether it’s the closing bars of the trap-infused “Crazy, Classic, Life” or literally every single quote-worthy line of “Django Jane”; honestly, who else is eloquently and unapologetically serving up lines like “We fem the future,” and “Let the vagina have a monologue/Mansplaining, I fold 'em like origami.”
Monáe has always felt like a future popstar with one foot in the past, her sound a mix of fresh beats, classic funky phonics and cinematic orchestration. Her influences are often worn on her sleeve, for example “Make Me Feel” is pure Prince (Monáe’s mentor had a hand in the synth lines before he passed away), while “Take a Byte” is a Janet Jackson-flavored groove (Monáe has always had a joyous Jackson family quality to her vocal). It’s a testament to Monáe’s own talent that where these influences are audible in her own music, they never feel derivative, just as the meticulous nature of the self-confessed perfectionist's music never feels labored. Monáe makes everything look, sound, and feel effortless.
Sex is a definite hot topic on tracks like the Zoë Kravitz featuring “Screwed”, a sort of ‘it’s the end of the world, everything’s fucked so lets fuck, but also fuck you’ jam. Grimes returns a favor (Monáe having featured on “Venus Fly” from her Art Angels record), showing up on “Pynk”, a track Monáe declares a “brash celebration of creation. Self love. Sexuality. And pussy power… 'Pynk' is the color that unites us all, for pink is the color found in the deepest and darkest nooks and crannies of humans everywhere.” It’s impossible to talk about the track without referencing its accompanying video and it’s instantly iconic vagina trousers. The visual also features actress Tessa Thompson (who appears inside the labial fabric of said vagina pants), a cameo that has intensified speculation that the two are an IRL item.
Which brings us to Dirty Computer’s biggest reveal. Until now Monáe has drawn the line at describing herself as “sexually liberated”, side-stepping questions about her sexuality by stating that she only dates androids. Monáe’s work has been littered with coded messages about her sexuality for time (see “Q.U.E.E.N”, a track that was originally titled “Q.U.E.E.R”) but now Monáe has revealed to Rolling Stone that she’s had relationships with both men and women and currently identifies as pansexual. “Being a queer black woman in America — someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” she told Brittany Spanos in the cover feature, “I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you." Amen!
Released in a moment in time when the actual President of the USA is re-tweeting Kanye West for his “very cool” tweets about them both having “dragon energy” and being “brothers,” Dirty Computer arrives as a record rooted in deep reflection, an antidote to Kanye’s new found pseudo-philosophy and Donald Trump-bigotry-endorsing presidency. Monáe called “bullshit” on Kanye’s support of conservative Candace Owen’s telling Hot 97, “I believe in freethinking, but I don’t believe in freethinking if it’s rooted in or at the expense of the oppressed.” Dirty Computer finds Monáe coming out fighting with love and acceptance, as she sings on the Pharrell-featuring “I Got The Juice”: “if you try to grab my pussy cat this pussy grab you back.” Monáe might be all about the future, but Dirty Computer proves her time is now.
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