On 'Dirty Computer' Janelle Monàe ditches the persona and shows us who she is
Janelle Monáe’s third studio album is an aptly-named medley of electronic and funk-soul beats exploring issues of sexuality and politics in the bohemian, Afro-psychedelic style that’s become her modus operandi. I first fell in love with Monáe’s sound when my friend Eve bought me her second LP, The ArchAndroid, for my fifteenth birthday. It’s a gem of an album and contains some absolute bops, like my all-time fave ‘Tightrope’, but the songs don’t reveal much (if any) of the artist’s personal story. Dirty Computer represents a welcome evolution from her previous work, and this is the first time she has allowed so much of herself to show through the music.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Monáe said “I knew I needed to make this album, and I have put it off because the subject line is Janelle Monáe.” Both of Monáe’s previous albums are based on the fictional character of Cindi Mayweather, a time travelling android with a bounty on her head. I think perhaps Cindi was a way for Monáe, who was only twenty-one when she debuted, to make the music that addressed the issues important to her while still protecting herself from the scrutiny of the industry. On Dirty Computer, she breaks down this protective barrier, and the music's all the better for it.
For me, the personal songs on the album are among those that pack the greatest punch. I'm particularly into ‘So Afraid’, a slightly sombre, soulful track towards the end of the album and ‘Django Jane,’ a song in which Monáe finally reveals her come-up story as well as her hidden rapping abilities. In the explicit but cheerily catchy ‘Pynk,’ the singer — who recently came out as pansexual — muses candidly on the beauty of the female form. The world needed more songs celebrating vaginas and Janelle Monáe came through! Monáe’s willingness to express herself so unapologetically as a queer, black woman feels extremely important.
The influence of another queer black icon, Prince, is easily detected in the album, and never more so than in the deep funky guitar riffs of ‘Screwed.’ It’s the result of a collaboration between Monáe and Zoë Kravitz, and one which just so happens to be my favourite song on the album. When I heard the lyric “Everything is sex, except sex, which is power,” I immediately recognised and appreciated it as the kind of deep, philosophical, social observation that's gonna make the shortlist for my next tattoo. But where 'Screwed' resonated, I've got to say I found it particularly difficult to connect with the shorter soundbites that crop up here and there.
Overall, Dirty Computer is an impressive body of work from Monáe; it’s all at once an album that incites uninhibited dancing and provokes deep, contemplative thought. I hope she continues in this direction of making music that reflects her character, because I think there’s so much more to Janelle Monáe than we’ve seen already.