Fans have noticed that Janelle Monáe Robinson is slowly progressing through a reinvention. At twenty-one, she released her official debut EP, “Metropolis”, introducing the industry to her soulful melodies and mysterious alter-ego (a time-travelling android named Cindi Mayweather) that has both enabled her concepts of afrofuturism and given her the cover to touch on a variety of societal issues; typically those that she found difficult to tackle directly. She has spoken regularly about using this alter ego as a proxy to discuss topics that she finds uncomfortable, including herself. Dirty Computer, she says, is the album that has been creating itself in her mind since the days before her debut. She readily admits that she wasn’t ready at the time to step into the truth that it demanded of her, and first needed some personal growth and understanding to occur. Although she is using yet another alter ego on Dirty Computer (“Jane 57821”), there is a lasting impression that this one is much closer to reflecting who Monáe actually is.
With her boyish outfits and exaggerated pompadours, Monáe gained an instant fanbase in the Electro, R&B and Rock crowds. She was different than most of the other artists that most would consider her peers. Her work seemed antithetical to the “take your clothes off and instantly increase your appeal” formula that many female artists fall victim to, in a male-dominated industry that tends to over sexualize and commoditize female acts. Although success came to her rather quickly, some people didn’t quite know what to make of her. It was obvious that she was a creative and talented artist who desired a less sexualized path than many of her contemporaries but for some, there was a lingering feeling that they didn’t understand who the true Janelle Monáe was.
Approximately two years ago, Monáe started to more seriously continue her efforts on the material that would become Dirty Computer. Before long, the work was put on hold again, in favour of Monáe making her film debut as a surrogate mother in Moonlight, an award-winning film that also featured Naomie Harris, André Holland, and Mahershala Ali. In December 2016, she also appeared in the smash hit Hidden Figures, a project that depicted some of the early contributions of black female mathematicians to NASA’s space program. After her parts in both movies were squared away, along with appearances on some other works, it was time to focus on on completing the new album.
Dirty Computer is Monáe’s third studio album. Conceptually, Monáe compares herself (and other visible minorities) to “dirty computers”. She’s explained this analogy by comparing individuality and uniqueness to what some people might see as a collection of “bugs and defects” that require fixing. She participated in writing nearly all of the album’s songs, though writing duties were shared with both frequent and new collaborators; Nathaniel Irvin III is credited on most of the records, and Roman GianArthur is given multiple writing credits. On the production side, the majority of the album was produced by Nate Wonder and Deep Cotton, with select sounds offered up by Pharrell, Mattman & Robin and Organized Noize. At nearly 48 minutes, the album packs a lot of heat into a rather small serving size.
One of the first teaser singles from Dirty Computer was “Pynk”, a clever interpolation of Aerosmith’s 1997 release “Pink”, a classic ode to female sexual organs. At the time, Aerosmith won multiple awards for both the song and its video, and Monáe provided her version with an even more suggestive visual, defiantly celebrating female empowerment, while captivating the senses with arresting sexual imagery and artwork. Sexual commentary runs throughout the Dirty Computer project, often with emphasis on female empowerment, freedom of choice and sexual desire.
Mattman & Robin delivered “Make Me Feel”, a plucky Prince-inspired jam that showcases just how different Monáe is from everyone else. She is all at once fierce, funky, smooth and chill. Prince’s influence can be felt strongly at different points throughout Dirty Computer, both in production and in its visuals (purple hues can be found continuously in the video for “Make Me Feel”). Having been mentored by Prince before his untimely death, it’s not unusual that this influence exists; in some ways, there is overlap between the two artists. Despite their similarities, Monáe has established her own unique identity.
The Pharrell-produced “I Got The Juice”, feels as though it might be a song that people either love or hate. It prominently features Pharrell’s signature bounce but its resemblance to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”, complete with exaggerated callouts during each chorus, may be hard for some to ignore. To be clear, it’s not that people dislike “Hollaback Girl” but rather that this feels like musical territory that has already been covered, quite well, by Stefani. While Monáe infuses the track with enough sexually charged energy to put her own stamp on it, I can’t list this song among my faves.
On “Screwed”, we see Monáe at her best; expertly riding catchy music while spitting some much-needed social commentary:
Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas
While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca Colas (oh)
Fake news, fake moves, fake food, what’s real?
Still in The Matrix eatin’ on the blue pills (oh)
The devil met with Russia and they just made a deal
We was marching through the street, they were blocking every bill (oh)
I’m tired of hoteps tryna tell me how to feel
Another standout is “American”, a spiky political track that seems as though it was artfully chosen to close the album, to leave the listener with Monáe’s stinging rebukes of the current systems of injustice and oppression:
Seventy-nine cent to your dollar
All that bullshit from white-collars
You see my color before my vision
Sometimes I wonder if you will fly
Would it help you make a better decision?
Monáe often manages to deliver important social critiques while simultaneously delivering dance floor vibes and silky slow jams. Not many artists can or want to do this, so it’s something that should be appreciated. In these troubling times, we need artists like Janelle Monáe who are honest, introspective and boundary pushing.