Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer review – Brace yourself to hear activism in sonic form
Wondaland/ Bad Boy/ Atlantic
R&B / Soul
According to the US Declaration of Independence, the people of America are entitled to the inalienable rights of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. With enviable confidence, Janelle Monáe figures out what that means on her third album. Here she creates a near-future totalitarian society that runs on fear instead of freedom, a society where all citizens are known as computers. Dirty Computer is the dreamy, neon haze of Black Mirror’s San Junipero episode, meshed with the tension of The Handmaid’s Tale and the vibrancy of Soul Train. It couldn’t feel more now.
With guest appearances from Brian Wilson, Pharrell Williams, Grimes and Zoe Kravitz, Dirty Computer explores what the American dream really means if you’re a woman, a person of colour or queer while giving you something to cut loose to because Monáe is good like that. Crazy, Classic Life is a two-part song that initially and breezily captures the freedom of being “young, black, wild and free” but in a quick turn, she switches to a growling rap and tells us how all of that can change by placing a white kid and a black kid at the same crime scene at the same time. “The same mistake, I’m in jail, you’re on top of sh*t. You livin’ life, while I’m mobbin’ sh*t. Tech kid, bad techno, you a college kid,” she says as a gospel choir builds up momentum. “All I wanted was to break the rules like you.”
To be carefree in the face of adversity is to truly be a rule breaker and on Screwed, Monáe tips into the online conversation of Black Girl Magic, a movement that celebrates the achievements of black women. Here she is joined by Zoë Kravitz, the Lolawolf singer, Big Little Lies star, daughter of Lenny and poster child for Black Girl Magic. “You f*ck the world up now, we’ll f*ck it all back down. Let’s get screwed,” they swoon with the confidence of people who know that they’re on the right side of history. “We’ll put water in your guns, we’ll do it all for fun.”
From womanhood to blackness, Dirty Computer is about representation and she namechecks the accolades of her black peers on Django Jane, referring to the box office smash of Black Panther and the Oscar-winning Moonlight and the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures, both of which she starred in in 2016. “We ain’t hidden no more,” she confirms over a trap beat.
On the vulnerable and self-conscious Don’t Judge Me, she reveals that “I’m afraid that you just love my disguise” but Monáe has now officially shed her disguise. When the 32-year-old released the album’s lead single, Make Me Feel, it was a thrilling moment for music. She comically bounces between men and women in the video, with women being the undisputed champions of her gaze, and as the Prince-heavy, tongue clicking, seductive and certified R&B bop plays out, it cuts down to their bare bones of sexuality: “That’s just the way that I feel now, baby. Good God! I can’t help it!” Your sexuality, your fancies and your flings have always been politicised but this album sees her sashaying into her “bisexual lighting”, a recent phrase coined by social media users to describe the blue and magenta lighting – the colours of the bisexual pride flag – used to portray bisexual characters on-screen.
While intentionally paying homage to the daring and androgynous Prince throughout Dirty Computer, in a world where women are kept in second place, when Monáe embraces her own femininity, it feels fearless. Pynk, her grungy and titillating pop collaboration with Canadian electropop wizard Grimes, repackages feminine softness – represented by the colour pink – as a type of strength, with the video acting as an unabashed appreciation for the female form. On the super flirtatious and funk-laden Take a Byte, she maintains a light-hearted and uninhibited approach to sex. The honesty feels revolutionary.
While this dystopian universe may be a way to soften the very hard and personal truths that Monáe hits, the album is activism in sonic form. Like Beyoncé’s 2016 audiovisual album Lemonade, Dirty Computer comes with a 44-minute futuristic and highly-stylised film to enhance the message even further. The visual element, which stars Monáe’s rumoured girlfriend Tessa Thompson, should clear up any mysteries, including the identity of the preacher whose speech bookends the album.
Dirty Computer is flamboyant and resilient, fun and hard-hitting and, if you’ve ever felt socially and politically oppressed, a spot has been saved for you in this brave new world. Monáe closes the album by inviting you to break free from this broken and distorted American Dream. All you have to do is sign your name on the dotted line.