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