‘Dirty Computer’: Janelle Monae’s Electrifying ‘Coming Out’ Party
The acclaimed musical artist’s third studio album is her most personal—and best—yet, writes Stereo Williams.
Janelle Monáe’s new album Dirty Computer features the acclaimed singer-songwriter at her most revealing and freewheeling.
The 32-year-old star is one of the most respected in music, and she’s won raves and challenged listeners with an ambitious blend of funk, pop, rock, soul, and hip-hop that has often made her hard to define. But being pinned down has never been Monáe’s style—and on Dirty Computer she lets her freak flag fly.
Monáe has admitted that her early “android” persona and conceptual The Metropolis and ArchAndroid projects were sometimes driven by the need to protect herself from judgment. As Monáe has evolved as an artist, she’s come into her own creatively and as a woman—and now seems fully in command of her art and emboldened by living in her truth. Like virtually every full-length release in her genre-bending discography, Monáe’s Dirty Computer is a conceptual affair: In the accompanying short film, she’s “Jane 57821,” a nonconformist in the near future who “needs to be cleaned” by the powers-that-be. She’s a rebel in love with her community and in love with Zen (Tessa Thompson)—and she’s fighting to be herself.
Arriving a whopping five years after 2013’s The Electric Lady, the new album finds Monáe simultaneously at her most musically accessible and her most forthcoming lyrically. It feels like she’s the most free on record that she’s ever been. Not that Monáe has ever seemed constrained, exactly—but her work has always seemed to put the concept ahead of emotional nakedness. On Dirty Computer, the concept is driven by her introspection, not the other way around. This is the strongest set of pop songs that Monáe has released, as she dances between sunshine synth-pop, dance-driven funk jams, and lush soul. Working alongside longtime collaborators like Deep Cotton and Roman GianArthur, Monáe isn’t in altogether unfamiliar territory musically, but she is breaking bold new ground in terms of themes, and she’s putting them across in more engaging ways than she has before.
The album opens with the Brian Wilson-assisted title track, with Wilson’s trademark only-but-him harmonies providing a warm bed on which Monáe’s warm lead vocal coos, “I love you in space and time,” with sparsely skittering production. With its twinkling chords and cascading drums, “Crazy Classic Life” channels ’80s synth sounds a la Depeche Mode as Monáe outlines her version of freedom: “I am not America’s nightmare—I am the American cool.” She wants a crazy classic life, and she’s perfectly OK with however it ends as long as she’s done it all. It sounds like an anthem for youthful brazenness and epic summer nights; it also sounds like a spiritual manifesto. The synth vibes remain on “Take A Byte,” and it’s a pure party: The thumping groove and handclaps are dance-floor-perfect, as Monáe sings, “Dress me up—I like it better when we both pretend,” in one of the most effectively sensual and slinky moments on Dirty Computer.
Prince’s influence looms large on Dirty Computer, an album that owes a lot to his most personally affirming dance anthems like “Uptown” and “Erotic City.” The guitar-driven “Screwed” even opens with a rhythm-guitar lick that’s a clear nod to his 1986 classic “Kiss,” but presented in a completely different musical context. “Sex, body—we’re gonna crash your party,” sounds like the best kind of warning, as Monáe provides yet another song that sounds like it was made for the best weekend you’ve ever had.
This is a fucking fun album.
“Django Jane” debuted online back in February, with Monáe trying on trap and showing that her creativity sits comfortably at virtually any stylistic table. “Sassy, classy—Kool-Aid with the kale,” Janelle raps confidently—and with more panache than most others who regularly trade in the format. “Remember when they said I looked to mannish?” she pointedly recalls, reminding everyone that during her ArchAndroid days she wasn’t always the beloved pop culture icon she is today. She deftly addresses gender, race, and her own still-growing legacy as an artist—perfectly seguing into “Pynk,” the other previously released single that had fans salivating in early April.
The double entendre of the title/hook—and the cheekily clever music video—is sort of a second affirmation of “Django Jane.” The color pink serves as a metaphor for both the universality of human existence and the specificity of womanhood. When the surging guitar and “Some like that!” hook kick in, it’s clear that Monáe knew she had another anthem here.
Prince collaborated with Monáe directly and “Make Me Feel” is an appropriate tribute, homage, and confirmation that no mainstream artist embodies His Royal Badness’ most provocative, singularly focused creativity as much as Janelle Monáe. That groove burns itself into your brain within seconds, when that all-too-distinctive rhythm guitar begins punching holes in the pace, as Janelle ad-libs a joyful screech—it sounds like an old friend making a welcome appearance at this Monáe-led party. Prince lives. Pharrell shows up for “I Got the Juice,” as Monáe flaunts and taunts a bit—over African rhythms and a percolating beat.
“I Like That” is the most atmospheric moment on Dirty Computer, a gorgeous melody carried on a wave of synth strings, as Monáe sings, “A little crazy, little sexy, little cool / Little rough around the edges but I keep it smooth / I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong / I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs.” She drops a brief rhyme about a childhood crush who “rated me a 6” after she cut her perm, but makes it clear that she always “knew I was the shit.” And she goes for ’90s neo-soul vibes on “Don’t Judge Me,” a song that addresses personal insecurity and the fear that comes from wanting to open and be your real self around the person who makes you feel the most loved but also the most scared: “Even though you tell me you love me—I’m afraid that you just love my disguise.”
That element of fear is revisited on “So Afraid,” a somber, guitar-driven tune that somewhat recalls the ’60s vibes of the title track. There’s so much to be gained by running toward love, but Janelle Monáe expresses the doubt and apprehension of emotional connections beautifully here. And she parodies the jingoism and paranoia that defines so much of the good ol’ US of A on the rollicking album closer “Americana.” Once again playfully tapping into her Prince-ish tendencies, Monáe offers a nod to the foot-stomping raucousness of “Let’s Go Crazy,” while taking aim at everything from “traditional” gender roles to xenophobia to generic Americana. It’s an upbeat end to an album full of joy and freedom, and it offers its best line: “I wonder if you were blind, would it help you make a better decision.”
Janelle Monáe has been one of the most era-defining artists of the past 10 years, and she’s done it without the kind of all-world hit singles that seem to define pop culture status. She’s managed to carve a niche in contemporary music that is uniquely her own, and here she’s created the kind of album that gives voice to the creative, proudly outside-the-box individuals that have fueled so much of the cultural and social change of the times. The android Cindi Mayweather gave Monáe a persona on which to explore her boldest ideas, but in putting who she is front-and-center, Monáe has delivered her most relatable work to date. And it couldn’t come at a better time. Black women have been leading a cultural charge, and Monáe sits alongside so many of the boldest women of her generation. With Dirty Computer, she’s given us a stellar pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ, party like its 1999, middle-finger-to-the-status-quo dance record.
There has been—and will continue to be—a lot written about Monáe’s coming out in the latest issue of Rolling Stone and how this album is reflective of her desire to be her. She said in the interview: “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.” Monáe has long been an inspiration to anyone who dared to be themselves, and her latest art documents an important moment in her journey as a creator and as an individual. It’s exciting to witness her come into her own.
And it sounds like she’s having a blast.