Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Dirty Computer, the new album from Janelle Monae.
Janelle Monae came out last week—as pansexual and a "queer Black woman in America," sure, but also as her most honest and whole self. Stunning as it was, up until now her world has been painted in black and white. It was pristine and controlled. It was...clean. In coming out, she grants herself permission to embrace the fullness of her being, the complexity, the messiness. Dirty Computer is her dazzling liberation song.
In 2007, via her Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), Monae introduced the world to Cindi Mayweather, a messianic android persona. Monae inhabited the world of this alter ego for the better part of a decade. Her debut and sophomore albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, continued the narrative through genre-bending jazz, rock and funky R&B soundscapes. Like any afrofuturist art, this was its own sort of resistance—“the radical claim that black people and blackness have a stake in the world beyond this one,” as writer Eve Ewing beautifully summed up in a tweet.
Through the lens of its accompanying emotion picture, every song on Dirty Computer is a piece of Monae's "dirt"—proof of her individuality, memories that need destroying. On their own, they are micro-revolutions distilled into pop music. Messages of undercover love were always present but largely coming from Cindi's voice. Now, there’s the singles: the ‘80s-styled groove "Make Me Feel" and the bubblegum funk of "Pynk” gushing with sapphic imagery and the pro-black girl bop “Django Jane” with its bold defiance. Despite its dystopian visual context, this album is Monae returning to this moment, drunk with radical self-acceptance and basking in it.
A reciting of the Declaration of Sentiments ushers in the jubilant swing of "Crazy Classic Life." The "all men and women" part is key. It’s tone-setting inclusion for an album centered on blackness, womanness and queerness as individual and intersecting identities. "I'm not America's nightmare, I'm the American dream," she asserts on an early pre-chorus, her manifesto condensed into a single phrase. Elsewhere, "Screwed" is a summery double entendre for sex as a conduit of power. It's as much a sex-pos as it is her most direct response to the current administration, complete with references to Russia and fake news. The question of "who's screwing you" just sort of hangs there. The song concludes with a flawless double-take transition into "Django Jane," Monae's gloriously boastful rap track. Fortified by an orchestral production of 808s, she throws a few jabs as a she takes her victory lap. "Remember when they used to say I look too mannish/Black girl magic, y'all can't stand it," she sneers as the beat drops out, throwing an audio middle finger to haters who are looking pretty foolish these days. She's long injected rap in her songs—as she does often here on Dirty Computer -- but "Django" proves Monae has bonafide bars.
For much of the album, she allows the songs as total packages and their messages to command the space. The lyrics are a priority, but "So Afraid" pops in as a reminder that Monae's voice is still incredible. The guitar cries as she confesses her fear in one of the most raw ballads: "What if I lose? Is what I think to myself/I'm fine in my shell/I'm afraid of it all, afraid of loving you." It closes out an exceptionally vulnerable section at the back end—a three-song sequence made of the self-confident jam "I Like That," the unguarded love of "Don't Judge Me" (which contains some of the album’s most poetic lines) and the gut-punching "So Afraid."
By the time "Americans" arrives on a trail of twinkling synths, how is it possible to not burst into tears? A breathtaking chorus of voices reassures us "hold on, don't fight your war alone...we'll find a way to heaven," and it's potent enough to shatter even the hardest of cynics. Like a gospel rave up (complete with a preacher), the track opens up into to a red-blooded reclamation of patriotism. Over a dreamy bed of synths and swing, she deconstructs the America that is built on classism, sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and all sorts of other -isms and -phobias. In its place, she erects one where the afflicted can be empowered and the social outcasts are validated. Such necessary social commentary has never been so blithe.
Monae culls her experiences and musical inspirations to create a colorful new world. Her primary co-conspirators are her Wondaland comrades Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning, who share her interest in turning music inside out. But, for her most classically pop effort yet, it makes sense she also called on a cross-generational tapestry of pop stars: Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder (who provides a speaking interlude), Pharrell and Grimes. Unsurprisingly though, her biggest touch comes through the spiritual plane. She resurrects her mentor Prince, not in homage but in vicarious dialogue—an extension of the Purple One's own artistic DNA, now proudly tinted pynk.
No more androgynous monochrome tuxedos (in part a homage to her working class upbringing.) No more hiding behind sanitized android abstractions and perfectionism. Dirty Computer crumbles her sci-fi veil to reveal Janelle Monae as we've never seen her before. To watch her get free through this music is to offer listeners reasons to celebrate when everything outside is begging us not to. It’s finding comfort in the knowledge that being "young, black, wild and free" as the lyric says, is the most political act there is.
Briana Younger is an N.Y.-based writer whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, NPR and more.