Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer could not have been released at a better time. A complex and genuinely enjoyable synthesis of pop, R&B, funk, and the sci-fi elements that have threaded through Monáe’s earlier releases, the album brings together different genres so that there’s something for everyone. Collaboration is key, with influences from Prince and tracks that feature the likes of Grimes and Stevie Wonder, but notably, the album is Monáe’s way of telling her own story and experience of being a queer black woman.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Monáe came out as pansexual, confirming the theories of many of her fans – that sexuality and orientation are expounded upon in her album. The song “I Got the Juice” explicitly references both sexual pleasure and resistance in the line, “If you try to grab my pussycat, this pussy grab you back” – a celebration of the defiant message of the Women’s Marches of the past year. On a softer note, we have “Pynk”, a song that has been praised by many as a millennial-style celebration of both feminist unity as well as the female form and desire. These songs stand strong alone, but the album is best listened to as a whole, with the songs perfectly sewn together. The flow of “Screwed”, a track that is dissertation-worthy in its analysis of sex and power relations beneath a catchy tune and upbeat bassline, into “Django Jane”, a rap that is heavy with allusions to black culture, and the resistance that Monáe labels the feminist “tsunami”, is flawless. Monáe transitions from song to song smoothly, depicting her skill as a rapper as well as her ability to hit notes across a wide register.
the album is Monáe’s way of telling her own story and experience of being a queer black woman
More than the celebratory anthems that continue through the album, Monáe shows a vulnerable side to her personal narrative, too. “So Afraid”, whilst more simplistic than some of the other tracks, provides a layer of insecurity to an album that is all about reclamation, using elements of soul to give a deeper insight into her thoughts. Likewise, “Don’t Judge Me”, the longest song on the album, pairs a slower tempo with lyrics that question, rather than state or affirm. The combination of Monáe’s sultry long notes and synth is engaging and effective: these slower songs are never dull, even if I personally favour the louder, carefree “Crazy, Classic, Life” or the album’s conclusion, “Americans”, which is an emphatic reclamation and reconfiguration of American national identity. Monáe’s lyrics are sermon-like, even including a spoken bridge by Reverend Sean McMillan that refutes the current Trump-led political landscape in the USA through the repetition of “This is not my America”.
This anti-racist message conveyed through an upbeat, tongue-in-cheek anthem, is exactly what popular music needs. If the constant feminist flag-waving seems overdone or cliché, you’re missing the point: Monáe is honest, and more than that, she is proud. The cyborg aesthetic that runs throughout is fun to look at and listen to, and elements of it certainly ring true in our increasingly digitised world, but Monáe encourages us to look at the human in all of us too, at the individuality that is so easily disregarded when put people into categories. For me, it’s the underrated “I Like That” that highlights this sense of individuality; unity is important, but so is fluidity – her view of herself as “the random minor note you hear in major songs” encapsulates Monáe’s whole game here, musical and political. Dirty Computer is as much a political manifesto as it is a work of art, and these aren’t components that can or should be separated, just as the individual can’t be taken out of society or the computerised from the human – it might just be time to sign up to Monáe’s form of musical hybridity and celebration.