In 2007, the world met Janelle Monae via her Metropolis EP, a seven-song, musically theatrical introduction to the pompadour-adorned android known as Cindi Mayweather. Via this EP and the suites that followed in The ArchAndroid and Electric Lady albums, Mayweather served as Monae’s surrogate for voicing issues related to the policing of identities that defy out-dated norms and conservative comfort. It had always been clear, however, that Monae shared Cindi’s plight in her own oppression as a Black, queer woman. In ways, it felt like Janelle needed a superhero so desperately that she became one. The hunt for Monae’s character in this dystopian, parallel universe represents the systemic erosion of freedoms that historically and currently devalue stock in the human lives of those with marginalized identities.
Removing the veil for her third studio album, Monae steps in as herself with the same fierce conviction to love freely and abolish the ideas and models that promote the ostracizing of those who also love freely whether they identify as gay, straight, queer, trans, nonbinary, etc. The strategic (and timely) replacement of the formerly androgynous and demure robot girl is notable for many reasons (like how the mirage that kept Janelle’s privacy in tact makes her vulnerable, the current dismal state of our political climate), but more so because the album’s explicit glory misfits the patriarchal narrative of what love is “supposed to be” and what is acceptable public behavior for women both artistically and in general.
Dirty Computer is visually-narrated by a near-fifty-minute emotion picture of the same name produced by the Kansas City-born artist herself and directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning with collaborative contributions from the amazing Lacey Duke and whimsical Emma Westenberg. In it, a storyline similar to that of Cindi Mayweather unfolds with Janelle Monae and actress Tessa Thompson starring as fugitive lovers being hunted by totalitarian authorities hoping to erase their memories as a means to “clean” them. The film also includes previously released visuals for the politically-charged “Django Jane,” the honestly sensual “Make Me Feel,” wildly sweet and provocative “Pynk” and the metaphorically naked acceptance of peculiar originality “I Like That.”
The album itself is fourteen songs trisected, by two short instrumental interludes (similar to the symphonic musical dividers in Electric Lady). Three of the project’s four, previously released singles are couched in the midsection – the fullest section – which seems to be rooted in sensual jamboree. Features from Zoë Kravitz on “young, wild and free,” up-tempo number “Screwed” and Pharrell on the blissfully disorienting, Electronic/Trap jam “I Got The Juice” are right at home here. Personal favorite “Don’t Judge Me” is a refreshingly erotic ballad featuring Jane’s infrequently appearing, raspy and low vocal alter. Preceding this in opening group is fun, Pop number “Take a Byte,” bold and hopeful cut “Crazy, Classic Life,” and the Brian Wilson-assisted “Dirty Computer” – a song about how society perceives the singer. The album’s first interlude (and divider of these two sections) is “Jane’s Dream,” a nineteen-second prophecy of the beautifully intimate “Stevie’s Dream” in which Stevie Wonder himself encourages expressing and demonstrating love in everything. This intro to the album’s final trisection hinges firmly on reclamation. Track “So Afraid” delves into the familiarity of everyday anxieties by all; though, after a listen or two, the dots connect to Monae’s honest sentiments about the newness in approach of this album. In an interview with Zane Lowe she said, “It’s such an honest body of work and I don’t know how people are going to react to it, Zane. I really, I don’t know. Just the thought of it is kind of freaking me out a little bit, but I feel like it’s something that I need to do. It’s something that I always knew I needed to do and it’s going to happen.” The album’s true standout, however, is “Americans” in which Janelle repossesses the image of what that looks like. An undoubtedly easy replacement for America’s national anthem, the song is a tuneful bird flip to this nation’s exclusive paradigms and an Andoridesque psalm for all the “others” everywhere.
The undeniable genius of Janelle Monae’s artistry can all but be overshadowed by her personal relationships, which is something she feared – especially with respect to Dirty Computer. And with all the questions surrounding the intimate nature of her and Tessa’s relationship, the reason the music remains front and center is because of its message; her mission. She has only consistently proved her mission as a doer in taking on roles that further amplify messages that promote the disenfranchisement of racial and social minority groups. This is apparent in everything from the artists signed to her Wondaland record label to her “Fem The Future” project, her selectivity with Hollywood roles, and the host of protests against police brutality and racial injustice she organized and participated in.
Dirty Computer was completed despite the obstacle of losing her mentor, friend and idea filter Prince. Knowing that and recognizing the daring manner in which she abandoned trite aphorisms to confront this personal (and shared) revolution makes this so much more than just her third album. Janelle has been quoted as saying, “I felt that way when I listened to Lauryn Hill, as I was trying to find myself as a young woman, I felt that way when I listened to Stevie Wonder when I was trying to understand God more.” As a woman who is also Black and queer, I think I speak for the large majority of us when I say she’s done just that, if not more. Dirty Computer is a mirror for who we already are and still who want to be; proud, undeniable and fully realized. It’s an acknowledgement of praise for self and a welcoming of continued evolution. By telling her story, we read our own. This marginalized intersection of forgotten (and muted) people are now equipped with the impenetrable hard drives of uncensored soul. Janelle Monae had us all declare “I AM A DIRTY COMPUTER” before the album even arrived so that we could build that identity into our own definition of self. With this, we take permission to boldly and proudly name ourselves. Listen via Spotify or Apple Music below, and be sure to catch the Dirty Computer Tour this summer.
“…the future belongs to us and our children because we are fashioning it with a vision rooted in human possibility and growth, a vision that does not shrivel before adversity.” – Audre Lorde (“Turning the Beat Around,” 1986)