Janelle Monáe’s new material continues her thrilling Afrofuturist opera
The ArchAndroid is back – and this time, she is armed with a Dirty Computer. After a five-year hiatus from music, Janelle Monáe has reprogrammed a new sound to fix her firmly at the front of the Afrofuturistic assembly line.
Monáe is always enigmatic and alluring, ritualistically clad in her tailored two-pieces and tuxedos since she landed in 2007 with the first instalment of her seven-part Metropolis conceptual odyssey. A 5ft force to be reckoned with, her sound has consistently used the powers of Afrofuturism to translate pertinent political statements. Her 2010 concept EP, Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase) influenced by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film is a sci-fi opera of rifts and synths that seduces you with the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android trying to resist the dystopic oppression that surrounds her.
Monáe joined a lineage of musical masters such as Sun Ra, a pioneer of the Afrofuturist movement who refused to accept a fixed identity and resisted closure. The prolific jazz musician would transport himself and his black listeners between planets through meticulous performances, and his 1974 released Afrofuturist album and film, Space is the Place. Similarly, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic ‘put black people in situations nobody ever thought they would be in… outer space’ with the seminal 1975 album, Mothership Connection. Sci-fi has long served as a space for black, particularly African American artists, to experiment with identity – and Monáe is thrillingly following suit.
She uses it as a critical platform to scrutinise politics and culture, and you can hear it when she ponders “Please Mr President, where is all the money you spent?” or sings “It’s a cold war, do you know what you are fighting for?” Ironically, although science fiction aims to escape the confines of the real world through fiction like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Monáe is still hemmed in by the resistance of the issues she attempts to discuss. She will forever be under the scrutiny of the systems, society and situations she critiques such as race relations in America, inequality and oppression.
Monáe’s monumental subversion and reinvention of reality as a political statement are skilfully done, and she manages to find a balance between making music that’s fun, cathartic and rich with social commentary. Each of her albums rings true, and still survive as relevant and progressive masterpieces.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Electric Lady is gracing us with new currents and sounds in a time when we need it most. On her third studio album, Dirty Computer, Monáe is giving us a glimpse into her software, with a more personal and intimate portrayal of the mind behind the machine. She speaks of it “being an extremely vulnerable” album that has taken her over a decade to create.
The album art nods to this new side of her, and in contrast to her earlier covers where she is a majestic machine directly gazing at the viewer, her latest album takes a different turn. Instead, we have a portrait of her draped in bejewelled chainmail, with iridescent eyes lowered as if she is about to confess. In the background is a blazing sun, that crowns her like a saint – or even a martyr who is committing a selfless act.
Listen to her recently released singles from the album, Django Jane and Make Me Feel, and it becomes clear what she’s professing.
Make Me Feel is a throwback to the 80s with references to her mentor and legend, Prince and a nod to drumming royalty, Sheila E. There’s an immersive synth line that makes it so easy to fall deep in to a dance when you hear it, and it starts with clicks and orgasmic gasps to remind you of the pleasure to be heard and had. There are climaxes when she sings, “It’s like I’m powerful” before dropping to a nonchalant bass tone to sing “With a little bit of tender”. It’s a great insight and revelation into her layers and complexities – this sound is sensual, and the warping of the electronic guitar in the chorus makes no apologies for this. It’s bright and bold, yet still manages to showcase Monáe’s distinct, dulcet tone. The music video is equally irresistible, with ‘bisexual lighting’(a term, as this Vulture article explains, coined by queer Twitter to denote a certain, bold colour scheme), dancers dressed like Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957) and colour sequences are woven in to remind you of Oscar-winning film Moonlight, David Bowie and Prince’s Kiss. The song is an anthem for pleasure and having no inhibitions.
Django Jane features her signature entourage of female dancers, this time dressed as a hybrid between black panthers, bikers and adorned with red traditional Igbo caps from Nigeria to make it clear she rolls deep with her community. The is more of a bounce to this, as she raps about “looking to mannish”. When you least expect it, she “queues the violins and violas” that play a short staccato tune before fading out and giving the spotlight back to a chest-deep bass. Brace yourselves, Monáe seems to be saying. Or, in her own words, she’s about to start “motherfucking pussy riot” in 2018.