Janelle Monáe Dirty Computer Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records / Atlantic Records
“I’m afraid that you just love my disguise,” Janelle Monáe croons on the ballad Don’t Judge Me. Flanked by a string section and acoustic guitar, running water samples and wah-wah effects, the futurist lounge jazz towards the end of Dirty Computer echoes a theme that’s close to the Atlanta-based performer’s heart. On the surface, it seems like a line lifted from a tentative love song. But it’s more than that. It is in fact a multi-faceted emblem of an album of great weight – an oeuvre that is concerned with the “Other”.
Monáe’s third full-length follows a life’s work interrogating gender and sexuality, prejudice and class, framed within carefully constructed and highly allusive science fiction worlds. It just so happens that now those themes are more relevant than ever. So instead of hiding behind the “android” persona of a time-travelling Cindi Mayweather – as in 2010’s The ArchAndroid and 2013’s The Electric Lady – Monáe recognises the times call for a more direct approach to addressing them.
Hence, Dirty Computer is set in an American near-future where difference and individuality has been outlawed under a totalitarian government. Pop cultural touchstones have been misplaced, blurred and garbled out of linear time. A short introduction features the 60s psychedelia and surf pop of the title-track, featuring the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, while a clear reference to Madonna’s Vogue appears on album closer Americans.
The only thing is, everything has been updated or corrupted in service of Monáe’s subversive, revisionist ends. It’s an approach that has typified her work from the beginning. The ArchAndroid recontextualised the evil antagonist robot of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis into the messianic saviour of a minority community of androids. The Electric Lady flipped the harmful racial stereotypes of popular soul, funk and rock into self-actualising assertions of the primacy of black cultural influence in the United States.
Unlike its predecessors, however, there’s an urgency to Dirty Computer that hinges on a contemporary moment of political oppression and resistance. “You told us, we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal,” says the sound byte of a rousing sermon by an unnamed speaker for Crazy, Classic, Life.
The celebratory affirmations of a soft-rock anthem sees Monáe gleefully asserting, “I am not America’s nightmare/ I am the American dream.” The commanding hip-hop sway of Django Jane redirects the wounded machismo, echoing the flow of Drake into Monáe’s intersectional feminist ends: “hit the mute button/ let the vagina have a monologue.”
Visibility and empowerment are the key imperatives underpinning Dirty Computer. Co-released via her own label Wondaland Arts Society, Sean Combs’ Bad Boy and Atlantic Records, the album hits on a revolutionary zeitgeist, alongside other mainstream milestones which have amplified previously marginalised subjectivities – like Black Panther and Moonlight, the Times Up and Me Too movements. The new wave reggae fusion of I Got The Juice featuring Pharell Williams touches on the defiant feminist war cry of the day (“if you try to grab my pussy cat/ this pussy grab you back”). The jangling funk rock of Screwed with Zoe Kravitz flips shame on its head with the double-barrelled innuendo of how to really fuck things up (“you know power/ is just sex/ now ask yourself/ who’s screwing you”).
Typically dense with historical reference points, as well as contemporary interrogations of real-world issues, Dirty Computer is the ecstatic protest album for an era that will keep people pondering its cultural significance for generations to come.