Bad Boy Records
In the current American political climate many artists have had to decide whether or not they will use their own private identities in the fight against bigotry, adding their voice to those that identify as queer or trans or undocumented. Janelle Monae’s first two albums had her donning the persona of Cindy Mayweather, a genderless cyborg that allowed musical creativity without delving too deeply into her own personal landscape. Dirty Computer, her third and latest studio album, finds Monae shedding this persona and allowing her music to look inward. In doing so she has created an album with a central theme of female freedom, both personal and sexual, that is both intimate and universal. On Dirty Computer, Monae has made the personal truly political.
Monae has described the album in three stages; the sting of bigotry (the knowledge of being considered a “Dirty Computer”), declarations of self-love, and ownership of identity and the inevitable resulting vulnerability. Despite the difficult theme of the album’s first third, the sounds employed are lush and inviting. The Brian Wilson–featured title track starts things off; a gentle lament wherein Monae compares herself to a dirty computer—not fully having moved on from her android ways—backed by harmonies that the former Beach Boy perfected 50 years before. This track, along with the following double-hit of Crazy, Classic, Life and Take A Byte, pulls you into the album with warmth and joy, though it isn’t all breezy. When Monae raps she articulates the difficulties in reaching the freedom the songs so long for, a reality that would never really allow Monae the same freedoms as her white friends: “Remember when they said I was too black for you… I was kicked out said I’m too loud, kicked out said I’m too proud”. “Take a byte,” Janelle croons in the song of the same name, “help yourself”, but remember, freedom is not offered in equal measures to all.
Screwed opens phase two of the album, a bubblegum-tinged jam that responds to the current state of the world with a mix of sex positivity and nihilism. I Like That and The Way You Make Me Feel are funk-laden declarations of sexual autonomy, the latter coming for you with a distinctly Prince flavor. Prince, a male artist that understood feminine sexuality and who Monae had worked with before his death, was someone who she says was a guiding light on the album. The sexual freedom of Prince’s music is brought to mind on PYNK, Monae’s queer anthem for women who love women; whether they be bisexual, gay, or like Monae has identified herself, pansexual. A song that is subversive yet packaged in the pink tulle layers of Monae’s pop sounds, the video is a celebration not just of women but of black women—an historically unappreciated group.
The final third of the album is the least interesting, but that could be just because this reviewer prefers a Prince-esque take on sexual self-determination then a slow jam about vulnerability. The final track Americans picks the tempo back up though, with a take on the current fight for American identity with Prince’s purple influence all over it. With Dirty Computer Monae has given us revolutionary intimacy and personal empowerment in a Trojan horse of pop hooks, sweet harmonies and danceable basslines. Organic, authentic and deeply feminine Dirty Computer is a sonic jewellery box of an album, velvet-lined and filled with trinkets, charms and sharp-edged rocks alike.