“It came to me in a dream,” Janelle Monáe explains in her satin-smooth, Southern voice, in an interview promoting her long-awaited newest album Dirty Computer. “We are computers. We’re uploading, downloading, we’re transmitting. And with all computers, you got your bugs, you got your viruses – right? Are those negatives; are those positives; are those features? What is it like to live in a society that is constantly trying to cleanse you, and tell you that you need to conform?”
Monáe has never been one for conforming. Since her early music days shrouded in the android alter-ego of Cindi Mayweather, her intentionally absurd red-carpet style, composed and elusive interview manner, and her desire to perform spreading from music to cinema and art have set her apart as an innovator in whatever genre of music she puts her mind to. With Prince as her mentor, Monáe has become synonymous with afrofuturism and modern black empowerment to the point that the cast of Black Panther were invited to her studios to seek inspiration. At just thirty-two, she has already become an icon; Dirty Computer does nothing but cement this.
The album is, simply put, a masterpiece. Its fusion of genre demonstrates Monáe’s range as both a vocalist and an artist, as it glides smoothly from hip hop to funk to pop to disco, each track an homage to the artists that shaped the style before it while reinventing it for a 2018 audience. Independently, each track is single-worthy. Make Me Feel deserved every bit of hype it got with its simple yet attention-grabbing arrangement, building to one of the greatest bridges ever to happen to music. PYNK is a Sapphic anthem, reinventing the female gaze (gay-ze) to allow women’s sexuality to flourish without ever feeling exploited. Screwed is an Oscar-Wilde-quoting, Zoe-Kravitz-featuring revolutionary song about sex, power and celebrity culture. Americans both defies and celebrates the country that has both made and failed the artist; the perfect, bittersweet finale to all that came before it.
But the album’s truest form is as a whole – listened to, or even watching, from start to finish as one coherent piece. Monáe’s art has always been about the entire, multitrack picture it creates, and this is no exception; Dirty Computer’s “Emotion Picture” is absurd, obscene, astonishing, filled with callbacks to her previous work while reinventing her persona into something new entirely. In previous ages, Monáe was synonymous with her coy, shrouded image, answering questions with her sexuality with the phrase “I only date androids” and cladding herself in the same monochrome suit, rapping herself in Django Jane that “black and white, yeah that’s always been my camo.”
But Dirty Computer shatters this in a technicolour fever dream of queer identity and an embracing of all the minorities that Monáe has been struggling to accept within herself for most of her career. It celebrates and empowers womanhood, black power, poverty and class struggle, queer life and anything else that sits in opposition to the norm. The vagina has been given its monologue, and it is a call to action in the form of arguably the best album of the twenty-first century so far. It has everything: sublime wordplay; one of the Beach Boys; labia pants; the speeches of Malcolm X; Tessa Thompson; the spirit of Prince infusing every chord, every line and every carefully constructed video still. It’s taken me a week to write this review, simply because it’s been such a struggle to try and capture what this album is, what it does, into words.
In the end, perhaps it’s best to let Monáe explain it herself. “Dirty computers don’t see bugs and viruses as negatives,” she told the interviewer. “Those are things that make them unique. It’s about embracing those things that make you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.”