This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre: Contemporary R&B, Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Dirty Computer (featuring Brian Wilson),” “Screwed (featuring Zoë Kravitz),” “Make Me Feel”
The elusive Janelle Monáe has made a homecoming to the mainstream the only way she ever could: with an exploration of sensuality and black girl magic that is unapologetically herself. The dandyist diva known for her James Brown-like moxie on the single “Tightrope” and sock-hop vivacity of 2013’s ELECTRIC LADY has transformed into a new mechanism that can seemingly bend space, time, and, more importantly, gender norms. Her recent journey has been a momentous one filled with stellar film performances in both 2016’s HIDDEN FIGURES and MOONLIGHT, while also having a knack for modeling and serving as the CEO of Wondaland Records. Now, she champions her status as a woman of color, and recently publicized pansexual, on her third studio album DIRTY COMPUTER, a synth-filled celebration of sexual liberation that is equal parts defiant and just flat out fun.
The Kansas City native has always been one to merge futuristic sounds with funky R&B. That stands true on DIRTY COMPUTER; however, we are also invited to hear Monáe’s most precious vulnerabilities while still being treated to her triumphant accounts in the search of self. What’s more is that Monáe opens herself as herself: she is not coming to the listener behind the guise of a character, rather, she is presenting the voice of Janelle Monáe (not taking into account the album’s accompanying DIRTY COMPUTER: EMOTION PICTURE, a 49-minute short film of the same name). In her previous works, notably 2007’s METROPOLIS: SUITE I (THE CHASE), fans were introduced to Monáe’s alter-ego Cindi Mayweather. Cindi, a cybergenetic android who acts as a voice for the oppressed droid community of the future, was the primary narrative drive of METROPOLIS and its predecessor, 2010’s THE ARCHANDROID, which follows her on a path of love and rebellion to unite her kind whilst living under tyrannical reign. DIRTY COMPUTER certainly contains elements of narrative, but they’re curtailed to the personal experience of Monáe as an artist and sexually repressed woman.
That all being said, the journey to her core feelings is a creep starting with the title track. Monáe has scored an absolutely legendary feature from fellow pop icon Brian Wilson, who harmonizes below her lyrics in the vein of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t’ Worry Baby.” The song itself operates as an indicator of how Monáe views herself; being a dirty computer is to say she is a bug in the world’s programming that does not take well to minorities or sexual outsiders. With lyrics like, “Searching for someone to fix my drive / Text message God up in the sky / Oh, if you love me, won’t you please reply?” she distances herself from the gospel-loving childhood she knew in Kansas and instead places herself as a secular individual in dire need of belonging on this earth. The technological references are aplenty throughout the album. On “Take A Byte,” she sings, “Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can’t pretend,” a clear testament to her pansexuality and her interactions with other members of the LGBTQIA+ community around her.
DIRTY COMPUTER’s high point is “Screwed,” if not for the fact that is features Zoë Kravitz, than because it is a bubbly funk track that is so danceable you easily forget how dark it can be. The song serves to both acknowledge that Monáe will mess around with whoever she wants, whenever she wants, while also alluding to the fact that the modern geopolitical climate might just lead to our global demise. Cheery. However, this is when the album takes a turn towards the inner workings on Monáe. The hedonistic anthem “Pynk” is a biological tease filled with sexual references that function as tools of empowerment, linking the complexion of various parts of the female anatomy to some of the most significant and beautiful nuances of life, such as a sunset on the horizon. Unquestionably the most provocative song on the album, it is accompanied by a rocking video where Monáe and co. don vagina-themed pants and celebrate their existence together in a desert paradise.
The radio hit “Make Me Feel” bleeds Prince inspiration. Monáe confirmed the late legend helped her craft this song, as well as several others, and it should come as no surprise that his influence would carry so much weight on this album, as Prince was always known for a similar ambiguity when it came to his sexuality. That energy continues on “I Got The Juice,” a Pharrell Williams co-production with his standard use of sharp percussion and rhythmic harmonization. These songs are straightforward commandments that assert that these new pleasures Monáe has experienced are here to stay. Yet, the album ends with “So Afraid” and “Americans.” The former gives Monáe a chance to reflect on her pansexuality through the eyes of an ostracized child who is afraid to leave her comfort zone out of fear of disgrace, while the latter is a general reminder of what work we have left to do in the US, reminiscent of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” taking the discussion away from the individual and opening an umbrella to all who need it. It does not offer the kind of cathartic finality one would hope for after being exposed to so much of Monáe, but it keeps us wanting more from an incredibly aware artist who is sure to continue on as a voice to be reckoned with while providing a good time all around.