Dirty Computer album review: Janelle Monáe's sleek, honest record resonates with current cultural clime

Aatish Nath

May 12, 2018 14:12:14 IST

For two albums and one EP, Janelle Monáe has used the android Cindi Mayweather, as an alter ego and stand-in for her own thoughts, experiences and music, one would assume. With Dirty Computer, Monáe does away with the sci-fi creation on her over-too-soon album.

Monáe's music thus far has always been allegorical, using a sci-fi dystopia to tackle themes that are relevant today. In Dirty Computer, that allegory is thrown to the side in favour of songs (and a 44 minute 'emotion picture') that tackle themes head on. In an especially revealing piece in the New York Times Monáe said, “I knew I needed to make this album, and I have put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe”. On the album, that translates to songs that are the most naked we've heard from the singer yet.

As a public figure, Monáe’s private life has been the source of much speculation. She has discussed her affinity for androids, but never a significant other, as she mentioned in a 2011 interview with London’s Evening Standard, “I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new 'other'. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman ... What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the 'other' to connect with the music and to feel like, 'She represents who I am'”. Now in 2018, Monáe came out as pansexual days before the album's release, putting to rest some of the internet gossip about her sexuality — allowing the focus to be her music.

With Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe does away with the sci-fi creation on her over-too-soon album

With Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe does away with allegory in favour of taking up themes head-on

And yet, with lyrics like "I am the glitch in the system" on album opener 'Dirty Computer' it's hard not to read it as a nod to towards these personal questions made private. Over the course of 14 songs Monáe takes the funk inflected Afrofuturism that has defined her sound and broadens it, creating a big tent space for people who, as she’s said in interviews, identify as the other.

With the arrival of Black Panther this past February, Afrofuturism has become part of the cultural zeitgeist, but it's worth remembering that Monáe has been mining the conceit across an entire imaged universe since 2007. Her first EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), and subsequent albums — The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady — tell a kind of ever expanding story, in a dystopian future. And yet, its not just that pop-culture has finally caught up with the singer. Her realisation that representation is important, especially for those on the fringes, is also something that the entertainment industry is only just getting around to, with technology, ahem, enabling minorities to claim their voice, before entertainment industry complex takes its chances on them.

The album bears traces of Prince, who Monáe has cited both as an influence and a collaborator, before he passed away. The bright funky beat of second song, ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’ is perhaps the most immediate song on the album, but for those seeking out Prince’s distinct slow-burning beats, ‘Make Me Feel’ is sure to be a favourite. Across the 48-minute collection, Monáe crafts a sprawling and ambitious soundscape, with inspirations ranging from traditional African music to the political struggles of the day. Along the way artists including Brian Wilson, Pharrell Williams, Grimes and Stevie Wonder lend their voice on individual tracks.

The album works it way across a sonic landscape that encapsulates sexy mood music, slinky beats and traditional pop songs, yet it doesn’t seem like a scattershot piece of work. Instead, as the sum of its parts, it’s a gorgeous affirmation of coming to terms with oneself, and a celebration of the person one is. The least elliptical album she’s released is also one of the best, for the simple reason that it’s a piece of work that offers an insight into the growing public life of the talented multi-hyphenate (since her last release, she’s starred in Moonlight, the 2016 Oscar winner for Best Picture, and Hidden Figures, proving her talent isn’t limited to music).

To try and parse an album that seems to be a celebration of a judgement-free existence is many layered and full of nods to various influences. However, it’s the optimism that buoys and binds the entire listening experience. It's not that Monáe isn’t aware of the current political climate, she spoke at the March for Woman and pointedly includes lyrics like “f you try and grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back” on ‘I Got the Juice'. Whereas Monáe once spoke in allegory, she’s now free, to speak, sing and rap, on her own terms.

Updated Date: May 12, 2018 14:12 PM