Janelle Monáe proves she’s human after all on ‘Dirty Computer’

May 30, 2018, 3:15 p.m.
 The first thing I noticed on the album cover of “Dirty Computer” — the long-awaited third album from singer and actress Janelle Monáe — was something that wasn’t there. On Monáe’s first two albums, she was singing in character as Cindi Mayweather, an android persecuted for falling in love with a human; these albums were a part of her seven-suite “Metropolis” series, something indicated by a series of circles on their covers. There are no such circles on the cover of “Dirty Computer,” but Monáe is still singing in character. This time, she’s Jane 57821, a woman persecuted for falling in love with a woman.

And yet, “Dirty Computer” doesn’t feel like a retread, but a refinement. After years of concealing her sexual orientation, Monáe came out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone cover story, published the day before the album’s release. While it was already impossible to overlook the themes of identity, suppression and persecution in the “Metropolis” series, Monáe’s revelation imbues Mayweather’s saga with more gravity than it had before. (To wit: The song “Q.U.E.E.N.” on a previous record was originally named “Q.U.E.E.R.”) These themes are still prevalent on “Dirty Computer,” but they’re simplified and streamlined. This extends to the character of Jane as well; rather than a fugitive android, Jane is a woman marginalized — reduced to a number, even — by the oppressive society she lives in. Call it a sign of the times, but perhaps Monáe feels less reason to couch herself in metaphor.

As with some of the most incisive works by Black musicians in the last several years — D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah,” Blood Orange’s “Freetown Sound,” Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” either of Kendrick Lamar’s latest LPs — “Dirty Computer” feels like a reaction to President Trump and the resurgent forces that enabled his rise. The album’s closer, “Americans,” tackles this from a number of perspectives: a sarcastic, regressive oppressor (“I like my woman in the kitchen […] She can wash my clothes / But she’ll never ever wear my pants”), Jane herself (“You see my color before my vision / Sometimes I wonder if you were blind / Would it help you make a better decision?”), and a reverend decrying an America he doesn’t recognize. “Django Jane” is a showstopping three-minute rap verse in which Monáe puts her haters in their place, threatening to “fold ‘em like origami” and “start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot.” Monáe hasn’t done much rapping before, and “Django Jane” makes me hope that she’ll do it more in the future.

The other tragedy that hangs over “Dirty Computer” is the death of Prince in 2016. When he passed away, the world lost an icon and visionary; Monáe lost a mentor and champion. Though it’s uncertain how much he actually worked on the record, the Purple One’s fingerprints are all over it, from its slicker, poppier sound to its unabashed embrace of sexuality. Lead single “Make Me Feel” is the most overt Prince homage on the record; if you called it a blatant “Kiss” bite, Monáe wouldn’t just own it, she’d likely take it as a compliment. Like “Kiss,” it’s an indisputable masterpiece of a song that intricately weaves several moving parts — slinky guitar, bright synthesizer, liquid bass, and tongue clicks — but knows to leave enough empty space between them. “Make Me Feel” is one of those songs where what you don’t hear is arguably as essential as what you do. “Pynk,” a collaboration with Grimes, is another such song, with a burbling synthesizer that builds up to a joyous chorus: “We got the pynk!” (There’s no shortage of phallic imagery in popular music, so it’s much appreciated to see Monáe’s glorious vagina pants in the music video.)

Other songs display Prince’s influence in less of a sonic fashion, by bridging the personal and the political. “I Got the Juice,” a bouncy call-and-response with Pharrell Williams, is littered with yonic references (“Squeeze all that passionfruit,” “Got juice between my thighs”), ending with a defiant repurposing of Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” comments: “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.” Earlier on the album, the glammy guitar strut of “Screwed” comes off as both nihilistic and hedonistic, using the screwed-up state of the nation — mass shootings, bombs in the streets — as an excuse to get … well, screwed.

If there’s any fault to find with “Dirty Computer,” sometimes it can feel a bit like Monáe is surrendering to pop tropes than subverting them. The opening run of songs — the title track, “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “Take a Byte” — are fun and immaculately produced, but they sound a bit like Monáe is on cruise control. Still, it feels a little unfair to hold the album’s more straight-laced forays into pop against its more adventurous ones. As it is, “Dirty Computer” is arguably the most ambitious pop album since Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” complete with its own visual “emotion picture” accompaniment. Like that album, it’s the sound of a Black woman proudly asserting every facet of her identity — her ethnicity, her femininity, her sexuality, her humanity. As the country Monáe calls home seems to be backsliding into a more regressive era with every passing day, “Dirty Computer” is a reminder of the liberating powers of progressive pop music. In its creator’s own words, it’s the sound of a “free-ass motherfucker” declaring independence.


Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jacob Nierenberg '17 is a coterm pursuing an M.A. in Communication on the Journalism track. The program is very busy and often precludes him from writing for The Daily, but he enjoys contributing stories and music reviews when he is able to. Prior to beginning the program, he completed a B.A. in American Studies. His hobbies include spending time with friends and listening to music, and he is always delighted to meet people as enthusiastic about music as he is.

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