Janelle Monáe’s new album Dirty Computer dropped today and if you think I haven’t been listening to it on endless repeat then you, my friend, are sorely mistaken and also probably are unaware of how amazing an album it is. Don’t worry, by the end of this review you will be very aware.
It has been a year inundated with Black Excellence – Black Panther was a box office smash, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is celebrating 60 weeks at number one on the New York Times YA list, closely followed by Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone at number 2, and Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first time the award has gone to a non-classical, non-jazz musician. Therefore it is extremely fitting that Monáe has produced an album that is not only a call to arms, but an upbeat love song to those artists who have had to work hard to get where they are and have excelled in their chosen fields. Dirty Computer combines the futuristic synth-pop sounds that have come to be something of Monáe’s marker, as well as smooth jazz and RnB notes. There is even the unmistakable sound of the steelpan in a few songs. Songs such as “I Like That” feel reminiscent of Beyonce’s “Hold Up,” while “Don’t Judge Me” reminds me in the best way of the cool RnB beats put out by artists like Alicia Keys and Macy Grey in the early 2000s. Dirty Computer is an unashamedly black album – celebrating everything from dark skin to the fight against police injustice. “Django Jane” is arguably the strongest song on the album and dear lord it is a powerful anthem from a Queen Goddess who is ready for war.
Much less like a god, Dirty Computer presents Monáe as just that – a computer who is starting to break down and become one with the earth. She is affected and infected by the world around her – it is something she can no longer remain distant from. It appears the Monáe is starting to distance herself from her well-known android alter-ego and embracing the earthiness of her flesh-and-blood body. Songs such as “Screwed” and “Pynk” emphasise the physicality of her body in a way that is much more naturalistic than she has previously used. In a form of musical blason, Monáe breaks down her body into its different parts with a particular focuses on those areas of the “traditionally” feminine body that are so heavily policed by the patriarchy – the vagina and the nipple. She repeatedly discusses the hyperfocus on the female areola and turns “pussy” dialogue back on itself – there is no question to whom she is speaking when in “I Got the Juice” she repeatedly states “this pussy grabs you back.”
Working with the late Prince on “Make Me Feel” and Monáe’s coming out as pansexual give the album a little extra queerness to work with. Released as a single earlier this year, “Make Me Feel” quickly became a bisexual anthem due to featuring Monáe kissing both a boy and a girl in the video (not to mention the fantastic pink and blue lighting). Songs like “Pynk” with the line “…boy, it’s cool if you’ve got blue/We got the pink” do appear at the outset to pretty firmly set gender as a binary, but taken as a whole, the album becomes about destroying the established expectations we have about race, gender and sexuality.
From a musical perspective, Dirty Computer showcases Monáe’s versatile style. The album has a perfect crescendo to the three singles – “Django Jane,” “Pynk,” and “Make Me Feel” and catches you as you are coming down from the high with the smooth tones of “Don’t Judge Me” and “So Afraid.” Monáe starts hard and ends hard – “Crazy Classic Life” and “Americans” perfectly bookend the album, with their spoken bridges and aggressive calls for equality regardless of skin-colour, gender and sexuality. In Dirty Computer, Monáe has perfectly blended her message of solidarity with outcasts and “Dirty Computers,” with feel-good music which makes it impossible to stand still.