Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer review

This is Janelle Monáe’s moment. Push­ing back against oppres­sion and divi­sion, the artist, actor and leader has come through with an astound­ing per­son­al album about accep­tance and lib­er­ty. Like David Bowie, Erykah Badu, and Prince before her, Monáe has made a mas­sive trans­for­ma­tion. Her third album, Dirty Com­put­er, is explic­it, sex­u­al and unapolo­getic. It is Monáe at her most hon­est. And it’s just what the world needs right now.

Monáe’s pre­vi­ous albums – The ArchAn­droid and The Elec­tric Lady – are dra­mat­ic, emo­tion­al sci-fi epics. They are con­cept albums focus­ing on her android alter ego, Cin­di May­weath­er, and the oppres­sive, Blade Run­ner-esque future she inhab­its. The themes and sto­ries in these albums are alle­gories for real life strug­gles of free­dom and equal­i­ty. This time there is no façade.

In her words, Dirty Com­put­er is about “the right to the Amer­i­can dream: the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness”. As some­one who has iden­ti­fied as a queer black woman, this album is a release from mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion. It takes place in move­ments, which she describes as reck­on­ing, cel­e­bra­tion, fear, and reclamation.

Expert­ly arranged to make up this com­plex emo­tion­al por­trait, the music itself is spec­tac­u­lar. Monáe has said in inter­views that Prince was work­ing with her on the album before his untime­ly death, and the Pur­ple One’s influ­ence can be felt through­out. Lead sin­gle ‘Make Me Feel’ is a glo­ri­ous, funki­fied expres­sion of sex­u­al desire. Love, sex and the female form are cel­e­brat­ed through­out the album, in par­tic­u­lar on the musi­cal­ly sub­tle, lyri­cal­ly sug­ges­tive ‘Pynk (feat. Grimes)’. Bri­an Wil­son (The Beach Boys), Phar­rell Williams and Ste­vie Won­der also con­tribute admirably.

There is a strong arc to Dirty Com­put­er. Kick­ing off with a quote from Mar­tin Luther King, the sparky ‘Crazy, Clas­sic, Life’ jux­ta­pos­es the shack­les of judg­men­tal soci­ety with the hope­ful­ness of free­dom: that you can be who you choose to be. That’s real­ly what this is all about. You feel that in end-of-the-world par­ty anthem, ‘Screwed (feat. Zoë Kravitz)’ and it’s a joy­ous rejec­tion of America’s intol­er­ance. In the mas­ter­ful ‘Djan­go Jane’, where Monáe raps with the con­fi­dence and flare of Queen Lat­i­fah. And you feel it in ‘I Like That’, a stand­out mas­ter­piece of fin­ger-click­ing neo-soul, self-love and lyri­cal excel­lence (“I’m the ran­dom minor note you hear in major songs”).

Monáe’s projects have always been a trip, and Dirty Com­put­er is no excep­tion. This is Monáe at her most art­ful, her most vul­ner­a­ble and her most hon­est yet (see the accom­pa­ny­ing emo­tion pic­ture) – and, it must be said, some won’t be ready for that. But, then, you could say the same thing about TLC, about Kelis, about Syd (The Inter­net), and so many oth­er women whose life and art have chal­lenged the accept­ed “norm” of their day. Here in 2018, when pol­i­tics around women’s right, gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty and race are under fierce debate, Dirty Com­put­er feels like real moment of progress in music. It’s an ecsta­t­ic ride that leaves you feel­ing lib­er­at­ed and gen­uine­ly hap­py with every listen.


Dirty Com­put­er is out now on Wondaland/Bad Boy/Atlantic Records.

If you like this artist, check out: Prince; Erykah Badu

Image: cour­tesy of Janelle Monáe/WEA/PR