Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer’ Is Her Defining Moment

Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer’ Is Her Defining Moment

The chameleon has shed her alter-ego at a time where Monáe's voice is more necessary than ever.

The chameleon has shed her alter-ego at a time where Monáe's voice is more necessary than ever.

Text: Jake Viswanath

It was nice knowing you, Cindy Mayweather. Janelle Monáe is a master of the concept album, crafting the cyber-borg alter-ego of Cindy to carry her through 2010’s The ArchAndroid and 2013’s The Electric Lady, two brilliant records that show her innate ability to mix rock, funk, electronica, ska, R&B-soul, and unadulterated pop into one gigantic, vivid fusion. On the highly anticipated Dirty Computer, her first offering in five years, she sheds the persona and stands as simply Janelle Monáe, in what has been described as her most personal album yet.

Now, that’s not to say that Dirty Computer isn’t a concept album in its own right. The record comes accompanied with a self-described “emotion picture”, a 45-minute short epic that plays as a queer, technicolor take on George Orwell’s famed novel 1984, considered by some to be a poignant representation (or warning) of the times we live in today. Monáe’s love of sci-fi is still present, as her character Jane 57821, considered a dirty computer, undergoes forced memory loss by a robotic Big Brother figure in order to cleanse herself. Each memory is tied to a song on the album, but most importantly, they reveals a different side of Monáe and what she stands for.

Dirty Computer is sassy, soulful, and self-assured, much like Monáe herself has proven to be no matter what she does, playing like a poignant blend of her mentor Prince's funky excellence and Madonna's penchant for empowerment via pop. She lets loose more than we’ve ever seen her before, especially on the effervescent “Crazy, Classic, Life”. She explores sex at virtually all angles on the album, from the sensual synths of “Take a Byte” to the shameless and empowering “Screwed,” assisted by Zoe Kravitz, to the hypnotic sleaze of lead single “Make Me Feel.” What’s most remarkable is how well she uses sex (biological in this case) to remind everyone who’s truly in charge, as she does on the unadulterated “Pynk” with Grimes.

But it's impossible to analyze these femme-charged anthems without the context of  yesterday’s revelation that Monáe is pansexual, and the film’s depiction of her sexuality. As lab technicians try to erase her memories, her connection to Zen (Tessa Thompson) refuses to diminish. As robotic cops try to shut down an outdoor party by resorting to gunshots, her power and love doesn’t waver. The sharp transition from lab technicians committing injustice to the proud depiction of love, romance, and sexuality are pointedly uncomfortable yet brilliantly executed, and it single-handedly transforms Dirty Computer from an adventurous album into a defining statement.

Perhaps the most significant words of her statement lie in the closing track "Americans," in which she draws a political line in the sand and inverts beloved U.S. cornerstones to become a symbol of pride for the marginalized ("Uncle Sam kissed a man" should get some Middle American boxers in a twist). If "Django Jane" was the reinforcement of black girl magic and female power, "Americans" is the beginning of a revolution. It turns the explorations of love, sexuality, and self-care that precedes it into a political force. Monáe is carving out the space to give a monologue, and Dirty Computer ends up painting a beautiful portrait of what it means to be a queer black woman in America today, proving her voice essential in today's music landscape. No alter-ego needed.

UP NEXT

Watch Kelsey Lu's New Video "Shades of Blue"