She’s back. Known as the ArchAndroid, queen bot Cindi Mayweather, the Electric Lady, she now takes on a simpler mantle: the Dirty Computer of her latest album. But you might have last heard artist Janelle Monae’s name in the news for a different reason, as she made headlines playing leads in the 2017 Oscar-nominated films Hidden Figures and Moonlight.
Dirty Computer is different from Monae’s previous works, with a different metallic patina. There’s less of the funk and jazz that characterized her previous album, Electric Lady, none of the sassy interludes from the Chrome Shoppe or talk show Good Morning Midnight. Monae’s Wondaland is so lush and dense you can lose yourself in it, picking up clues to the universe with every new song. In this album, however, there are still interim clips, like “Jane’s Dream” and later “Stevie’s Dream,” snippets under a minute that are like a reverie.
Several other songs are titled according to this computer theme, like “Take a Byte.” Languid and gloriously relaxed, Dirty Computer seems to take place in an electronic wasteland, a futuristic, bots-ridden California.
And it’s the perfect place, because in a desert landscape where you can practically feel the thirst cinching your throat, Monae showcases abundance. She celebrates everything about being a woman: with unabashed strength in “Django Jane,” a rap track with pop references galore, or flourishing, delicate in “I Like That.” Monae’s electronic monolith is full of nuances; the womanhood she paints has every hue. Even the most suggestive ones; like in “Pynk,” featuring Grimes. “Make Me Feel” is a funky, unapologetic tribute to love and lust. Monae lyrically treasures her sexuality, showing you don’t need to hide it or feel ashamed, however you identify. In “Screwed,” featuring the likewise multi-talented Zoe Kravitz, while welcoming Armageddon, Monae declares the sexual revolution is here–and it’s liberating.
And as always, Monae has a flair for the deeply romantic. Toward the end of the tracklist, the songs are even more exquisite, vulnerable. “Don’t Judge Me” simmers with desire, and the fear of reaching out, when nothing may be there; “So Afraid” begins with the square stanzas of a Western canter, fading into a roaring anthem, confessing, I’m afraid of it all, afraid of loving you.
No art is made in a vacuum, and modern political forces can be traced, tracked, even confronted in Monae’s album. At the intersection of black, female, and queer, Monae dissects the politics, while also celebrating naturally being all three. “Crazy Classic Life” begins with an upstanding recitation of Americans’ unalienable rights, the narrator’s voice echoing the phrase, the pursuit of happiness…pursuit of happiness…pursuit of happiness… Later in the song, over geniusly tight rap, Monae describes how the same pursuit of rule-breaking fun goes very differently for a white youth and black youth–the former lightly wrist-slapped and pardoned, the latter jailed and made janitor. “Screwed” is satirical in its own way, cheerfully resigned to a world that’s going to end anyways, so we might as well have a ball. And “Americans” is the resounding finale, taking bows stage left and right to American cliches. Please sign your name on the dotted line, she sings at the end, a toast to capitalism. We will–and the name is Janelle Monae’s.
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