Last night (13 March), Janelle Monáe touched down in London to trail her new album, Dirty Computer, in a trendy basement bar in Soho.
With attendees’ smartphones sealed in Yondr pouches, she took to the floor with a troupe of spandex-clad dancers and blazed (well, lip-synced) through six tracks from the new record – including the double-dropped singles, Make Me Feel and Django Jane.
Here’s what we learned…
Firstly, this will be another concept album
Just like The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, this album will be driven by a core concept. It’s one, Monáe said, that “came to her before ArchAndroid,” but she hasn’t felt ready to make until now.
It’s an album, she explained, that she “needed to make, but felt scared to.” Defined by “vulnerability, honesty and rawness” it’ll see Monáe lay herself bare in presenting her perspective as a “young, black, African-American woman.”
It’s unclear exactly how this will play out over the course of the full record – if previous album lengths are anything to go by, we’ve only heard about a third of the tracks so far – but we do know it’ll be accompanied by a so-called ‘emotion picture’.
The film also features Tessa Thompson and will chronicle music from the album and explore themes of sexuality, identity and black excellence. A trailer for the film was first aired prior to screenings of Black Panther.
Secondly, there is more than one Dirty Computer
This album, Monáe said, is aimed at celebrating those people who have been “pushed to the margins of society.” These people, she explained, are the “dirty computers” of this world, and the album aims to tell those people that “they don’t need to change to make others feel comfortable.”
It’s a sentiment borne out in the lyrics debuted last night, as she raps on one trap-inflected R&B number that Beyoncé would love to have written: “I don’t care what I look like/ but I feel good.”
Also, she’s expressing her sexuality
While she’s been careful not to go out of her way in defining her sexuality, the new tracks show off a new sense of sexual liberation.
On one track that sounds like Kelis’ Milkshake for a 2018 crowd, she repeats “I got the juice” like a mantra before declaring “baby I’m the drug”.
On another, funk-laced pop track she declares “[I] wanna get screwed at a festival/ Wanna get screwed like an animal” before launching into a chorus of “Let’s get screwed/ I don’t care”.
Much has been made of the bisexual themes implicit in Make Me Feel, but here it feels like she’s channelling her mentor Prince and his famously ambiguous – and free – take on gender and sexuality. Speaking of whom…
Prince is very present
Monáe has previously spoken about collaborating with Prince on the album before he died of an accidental drug overdose in 2016, and his presence is very much felt on the tracks we heard last night.
As well as on Make Me Feel – built on a synth groove which has been confirmed as a Prince riff by his DJ – the late pioneer’s penchant for blending funk, rock, synth-pop and disco runs a groove throughout.
There’s even a tune seemingly dedicated to the colour pink and all it represents that could sit as a pale variation on the maestro’s favourite shade of purple…
Identities are being reclaimed on this record
From declaring, on Django Jane, that it’s time to “hit the mute button/ Let the vagina have a monologue” and that she’s “Jane Bond, never Jane Doe” and “Django, never Sambo”, to listing out the achievements of the “highly melanated” – including a nod to the black-led films beating box office records – Monáe uses her platform to overwrite imposed stereotypes.
In particular this feels like an album that will celebrate women of all shapes, shades and persuasions, something that’s been in the backbone of her work and activism in the five years since her last full-length record. As well as a stirring address at this year’s Grammys, she spoke at 2017’s Women’s March and founded the Fem The Future grassroots movement before Time’s Up shone its spotlight on the media and entertainment industry.
While The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, leaned heavily on the explorative technological and sci-fi aspects of Afrofuturism, here Monáe’s focus is to explore her present day and the arguably stickier questions of human identity in 2018.
Finally, this is an album of pop songs that will make you dance
It’s not easy to get a crowd of Londoners moving at 7pm on a damp Tuesday evening, even if they have been plied with free cocktails beforehand. Unless you’re Janelle Monáe, it seems.
In the space of a few minutes, the room was bouncing and before long Monáe and her dancers were pulling willing volunteers into the mix to twist their hips. The record is one that’s irrepressibly fun.
Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer will be released on 27 April