From the word go, Janelle Monáe has been wholeheartedly devoted to her cause. Starting with her 2007 debut EP Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase) through to her last album The Electric Lady (2013), she has maintained a character grounded in Afro-futurism and dedicated to fighting inequality and prejudice. In adopting the role of android Cindi Mayweather, she broached racism, sexism and prejudice against LGBTQ people, while producing music that appealed to the hips as well as the heart and mind.
A lot has changed though since The Electric Lady was released nearly five years ago. The groups she fought for might have expected at least some progress to have been made in the intervening time, but the world has taken backward steps. Now there’s an unrepentant “pussy grabbing” racist in the White House and a rebirth of jingoistic Nationalism across Europe and many other parts of the globe, which makes it a question of how Monáe will approach these themes on her new album Dirty Computer, rather than if she approaches them at all.
Of course, Monáe herself has had a busy five years, filled with numerous adventures away from her own music. She has starred in the films Hidden Figures and Moonlight, taken her record label to new heights and rubbed shoulders with Michelle Obama in her humanitarian work. Given the level of change on both a personal and societal level, the biggest question with Dirty Computer is whether we will get to know the real Janelle Monáe or if Cindi Mayweather will once again take center stage.
That question is answered immediately with the help of Brian Wilson (yes, that one) and his angelic harmonies on album opener “Dirty Computer.” Beyond the shimmering vocal layers lies a narrative that suggests in this digital age, we are all pieces of hardware with glitches or bugs in our operating systems: “If you look closer you’ll recognize / I’m not that special, I’m broke inside / Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me.”
With that question answered it falls to second track “Crazy, Classic, Life” to provide a manifesto for the rest of the album. Opening with an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence which itself forms part of a sermon from Dr. Sean McMillan, it highlights both the pursuit of happiness and the masculine bias inherent within the wording of the excerpt.
The verses’ focus on the intensely personal aims for the artist (“I don’t need a lot of cash / I just wanna break the rules”), while the bridge relates those wishes to America in its current state of flux (“We don’t need another ruler / we don’t need another fool / I’m not America’s nightmare / I’m the American cool”). By the time the chorus hits, Monáe is channeling the same pre-apocalyptic, hedonistic desires Prince voiced on “1999”: “I want a crazy classic life / So if the world should end tonight / I had a crazy, classic life.”
Indeed the spirit of Prince looms large in the rearview mirror throughout the album. Monáe has name checked him in every single accompanying interview (even attributing the delay in this album to his untimely passing) and has stated that he was working on “sounds” for her prior to his death. The writing credits though, reveal no official Prince appearance and the music itself (apart from the sparkling, infectious “Kiss” homage “Make Me Feel”) isn’t as Prince-like as you might expect.
Instead a pristine pop sheen makes it her most mainstream album to date, without sacrificing her lyrical power and artistic integrity. Monáe is unabashedly sexual one moment and unafraid to tackle inequality and prejudice the next (sometimes within the same song), and it’s rare that such deeply held resistance has sounded so much fun.
“Screwed” is one such example of this winning juxtaposition. A choppy, mid-tempo groove powered by a Nile Rodgers-esque guitar line featuring Zoe Kravitz plays on the double meaning of the titular word, before fading out to a rap that tackles misogyny, Trump’s Russian connections and self-affirmation. And this is one of her truly memorable gifts—the ability to switch so effortlessly from personal to political without missing a beat.
“Django Jane” underlines Monáe’s quality as a rapper with a regal swagger that may be stately paced but the venom that lies in the moment before she spits the line “Black Girl magic, y’all can’t stand it” reveals the depth of anger and frustration below this façade of effortless cool and confidence. “Pynk” follows and serves to highlight her almost unparalleled adaptability. Starting as a half-remembered echo of “Only You” by Yazoo, it morphs into a sugar rush pop thrill ride in the chorus. The changes in tone are always convincing, controlled and effective.
If there is a slight misstep, it is the Pharrell Williams featuring “I Got The Juice.” Sure it features his trademark skittish beats and percussive idiosyncrasies, but the only thing it really adds beside those things is the killer line from Monáe: “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.”
But the self-doubt and hesitance of “Don’t Judge Me” and “So Afraid” lend an air of vulnerability that creates a more rounded, flawed impression of the artist that lends even more humanity to the newly revealed Janelle Monáe, a long way from the android Cindi Mayweather.
In listening to Dirty Computer as a 42-year-old white man at a crossroads in his life, I was struck with and inspired by its message of self-confidence, equality and resistance to a world wobbling on its axis and I’m literally perched near the top of the privileged pile. I can only imagine how listening to this as a black woman or a gay man or any other mistreated and vilified group must feel. The positivity and sheer, unadulterated life force radiates from this mightily impressive album but never at the expense of musicality or artistry.
Monáe arrives on a wave of cultural success for black artists in America, be it Black Panther, Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer prize, Ava Duvernay and Jordan Peele’s Hollywood success or Beyoncé’s era-defining Coachella set. This album should see Janelle Monáe take her place among those peers at the forefront of a brighter horizon for all of us and by revealing herself more fully, she has come out swinging harder than ever.
Notable Tracks: “Django Jane” | “I Like That” | “Make Me Feel” | “Screwed” | “So Afraid”