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The Lead Review

To Make You Think, To Make You Dance: Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer
Grace Barber-Plentie , April 26th, 2018 23:01

What’s the difference between trying to sound like Prince and continuing the dirty beautiful proud dance-and-fuck-and-love-yourself legacy of Prince? Janelle Monáe knows

I’ve been obsessed with Janelle Monáe ever since I saw a photo of her in Vogue, more than 10 years ago. She had an old Hollywood glamour mixed with something new and out of this world; she was an android in a glittery black-and-white tux with her hair pinned high in a quiff. At the time, I didn't quite understand what it was about her that was so captivating - did I want to be her or be with her? (Spoiler alert: bisexuality.)

Then I was in raptures over her first EP, 2007’s Metropolis, the story of an android called Cindy who falls in love with a human. Since then, Monáe has released two full-length albums, The Archandroid and Electric Lady - sweeping love stories of androids and humans and rebellion that span genres and have featured the talents of Prince, Erykah Badu and Miguel to name but a few. She got more chart-friendly for 2015 single ‘Yoga’, and she starred in Oscar-nominated films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. I’ve watched and cheered the progression of Monáe’s career for the past decade but it’s only now, with her third album Dirty Computer, that she’s truly achieved a tour-de-force.

One of Monáe’s weaknesses in her previous albums was a tendacity to flit between genres - giving us throwback soul one minute and experimental MGMT-esque weirdness the next. She’s also been susceptible to an interlude between songs, usually disrupting rather than enhancing the narrative. Dirty Computer flows seamlessly. Perhaps she’s learnt from working on Moonlight with Barry Jenkins that less is more - sometimes an album only needs bare bones to tell its story.

But while Dirty Computer strips back its narrative, it piles on the damn catchy music. Those still mourning the loss of Monáe’s mentor Prince will find solace here, in an album that never imitates but continues the legacy of the lost star. It even uses Prince’s unreleased music - it’s recently come to light that the synth line in ‘Make Me Feel’ was bestowed to Monáe by the Purple One himself. And there’s such a strong sense of Prince’s uniquely joyful nihilism to the first half of the album, with songs such as ‘Screwed’ (“Let’s get screwed/I don’t care/You fuck the world up now/We’ll fuck it all back down”) which accept the end of things as we know them. The album’s second song, ‘Crazy Classic Life’ serves as a throwback to the sentiment of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, as Monáe sings over soaring guitar and synths: “If the world should end tonight / I had a crazy, classic life.”

It’s not just Prince’s nihilism that Monáe embodies on Dirty Computer - she’s also made a record that’s overtly and proudly sexual, as evident from the opening verse of ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’ - “Young, black, wild and free / Naked in a limousine / And I just wanna party hard / Sex in a swimming pool.” That’s not to say that Monáe never explored sex and love in her previous work, but it’s been a more sanitised version - one more in line with being an android, I suppose. On Dirty Computer, she’s flesh and blood with carnal needs. ‘Pynk’, with its video an unabashed dedication to black femme queerness, is a love song to the labia. And one of the album’s main talking points, ‘Make Me Feel’, is the ode to bisexuality (and “bisexual lighting”) that we’ve been waiting for.

Because not only is Dirty Computer an album focused on sexual liberation, it’s an album that’s focused on queer sexual liberation. In ‘Make Me Feel’, it’s never apparent who Monáe is singing to - man, woman, or both, or android. And ‘I Like That’ serves as an answer to the question Monáe asked on Electric Lady’s ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ - “Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?”. On this new track, she tells us “I don’t really give a fuck if I’m the only one who’s like that” - she may be weird, different, queer, but she’s at peace with that.

Monáe has never shied away from politics, but Dirty Computer is a highly political record in a way that her previous work hasn’t been. 2015’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’ - a song that lists black victims of police brutality in the US, recorded to support the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement - is an extremely powerful anthem, and one that stands alone in Monáe’s discography as a moment of pure fury. When Monáe has tried to be political at other points in her career, such as on early song ‘Sincerely, Jane’ and even the end of ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, she’s adjusted her music for the occasion, becoming sombre and even… a little preachy. On Dirty Computer, she finds a rich mid-ground between politics and pop, never shying away from important messages about the state of America but doing so over ebullient synths and funk that her mentor would be proud of.

The recent uprising of #MeToo is also expressed in ‘I Got The Juice’, where Monáe chants a riff on “this pussy grabs back”. There are times though where Monáe’s feminism feels disappointingly cis- and vagina-focused - I wish she’d taken the time to explore the politics of non-cis women and non-binary people a little more. But Dirty Computer succeeds at what it came to do - it’s here to make you think, and it’s here to make you dance. It is the most clearly delivered result of Monáe’s vision so far - the android rebirthed from the fire as a queer phoenix, here to continue her mentor’s legacy.

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