Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, her first release since 2013, is a fast-paced, outspoken, fabulously fun and original piece of work.
Dirty Computer, at less than an hour, is the shortest and most streamlined of Monáe’s full-length albums. Although it isn’t telling the previous saga of Cindi Mayweather, ArchAndroid, it is still telling an android-adjacent story with identifiable themes. Monáe is just this skilled so that she knows exactly what she wants to talk about and how to do so to pack the biggest—and, naturally, the most radio- and playlist-ready—punch. Nearly every song is a world unto itself, a “mood” as the kids say, and the images paired with them definitely are.
The “emotion picture” of the same name that accompanied the release of Dirty Computer is a valuable companion to the album. It illustrates the narrative undercurrent of the album, and gives us music videos for “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “Take a Byte” and “Screwed” that are just as exciting as the previous four videos we had been treated to. The theme and message of the film are the same as the album and you can’t miss it in either medium: be unafraid to live your lives. All of your messy, sexy, queer, black, young, free, American lives. Not every one of those labels will belong to everybody, but undoubtedly one or two will and Monáe wants to let you know that there is nothing “dirty” about wanting to live your life honestly and freely.
A common theme of the album is the reckoning with, and acknowledgment of, identity and the personal power that comes with that acknowledgment. “Make Me Feel” and “I Like That” are two of the most explicit proclamations of identity and self-love on the album, with the former being an intoxicatingly Prince-infused, democratically elected New Bisexual Anthem and the latter existing as a smooth and slow declaration of not caring if you’re “the only one” who likes what you like. Then there is “Django Jane,” which stands out for being the only true-blue rap song on the album (just in case you forgot, Monáe can do anything and everything she wants), and it is insanely quotable. As Monáe explicates her existence as a black woman, she makes references to her past career, her current achievements, and the uphill battle of her parents and herself, she makes a bold declaration of power and strength.
Possibly Monáe’s largest accomplishment with Dirty Computer is crafting so many instant hits (you need only listen to most songs once before they’re a part of you), and many of them very pop or dance-ready, while still committing to writing thoughtful, current, complex lyrics within those hits. It seems unavoidable that nearly every new music—or television, movie, book—release now gets looked at through a political lens, as we wonder how the past two years and a shift in national discourse have affected someone’s music. Monáe, as an artist who vocally supports her causes and her black, female, queer communities, isn’t going to completely bypass talking about her feelings about current America. Listeners who half-listen to the singles might think that she’s just releasing a pop album and that music that makes you want to dance and get down can’t address any deeper feeling—but they would be wrong. Monáe includes in nearly every song some deeper moment, a line or two that makes you reassess what you’ve been listening to or examine your own experience of the music.
“Crazy, Classic, Life” is generally a classic “if the world ends tonight, let’s have fun” pop song until Monáe’s shifts to a rap verse at the end about, essentially, wanting to “break the rules like” a white friend, but always “standing out” no matter where she goes, and how she and this friend could make “the same mistake, [but] I’m in jail [and] you on top of shit.” The rest of the song is about wanting to just live your life freely, and this last verse ties it up with a bow by nudging some listeners into remembering that “just living your life” is an actual act of defiance for a lot of people of color and queer people.
“Screwed” is similar to “Crazy, Classic, Life” in that it is also a great party/anthem song. This one has a little fun with wordplay, using “screwed” in the sexual sense as well as the metaphorically ruined sense. Monáe breaks into the jam with a spoken word message that “everything is sex, except sex, which is power, you know power is just sex, now ask yourself who’s screwing you.” It’s a slightly campy touch, but totally in fitting with the irreverent defiance of the song.
The most cleverly coy song of the album might be “PYNK,” which stands out sonically alone. Monáe, collaborating with the electro-pop maven Grimes, pares down the music and her vocals to nearly a whisper for most of the song as it whirs along with finger snaps and sparse notes that mimic the hip-pops and lip smacks of the video. It’s a perfectly balanced blend of making an interesting, catchy and summer-ready pop jam while simultaneously wrapping it up in a subtly political message of celebrating women, sexuality, and the innermost corners of all human bodies, three things which many people still expect others to carry shame about. Besides the clear musical influence, one of the best traits Prince may have passed to his protégé Monáe is the ability to write sexual songs that are about more than “I want to have sex.” But then, when either artist wanted to write a sexy jam, they could damn well do it, as Monáe does here with “Take a Byte,” which is primarily a cool, android-style come-on.
All of this is not to say Monáe is just a hit-factory. Rather, the end of the album reveals a slower, softer and surprisingly vulnerable side to the singer and the narrative we’ve been following in Dirty Computer. “Don’t Judge Me” is directed at a lover, rather than the outside world, as Monáe breaks your heart and wonders “do you love me or my disguise? And “If I kissed you, would you think I was lonely?” That song leads into “So Afraid,” which is about being afraid of falling in love and big feeling. The back third of the album is generally slower and less rollicking than the first section, but songs like this make up for it by revealing a new emotional side to Monáe’s work. The only unimpressive spot for this listener is “I Got the Juice,” which bridges the middle and end of the album, features a slightly sleepy guest spot by Pharrell, and generally goes on a little too long.
The last track “Americans” begins by sounding like the hybrid of “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Vogue” (yes) and returns to one of the overarching themes of the album. Monáe sings in “Crazy, Classic, Life” that she is “not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream.” Monáe’s identity as a black, queer woman—three perpetually maligned American, and international, groups—sets her up to superficially be an all-in-one for people looking to hate and fear any of those three identities. But here she says, I am the opposite of what you should fear, I am the American dream personified. I am free to be a child of blue-collar workers, free to grow up and find success as an artist, free to speak my truth to millions through my work, and free to love whoever I want and to tell you all about it—or not. Monáe’s ability to capture the complex existence of many American people within some of the most instantly likable pop songs of recent memory makes Dirty Computer a stand-out album of the year.