Review: Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe spent years using metaphors and symbols to express herself. By deciding to use pieces of herself this time, she created her most impactful record to date.
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Janelle Monae Dirty Computer

We all look to role models for strength of conviction, and that includes badasses like Janelle Monáe. In the lead up to her new record, Monáe lost two role models: one suddenly and tragically, Prince, her mentor. The other she chose to retire, a Miss Cindi Mayweather, the android messiah of Metropolis; The Archandroid, and The Electric Lady. Both played major parts in the cultivation of Monáe’s sound and aesthetic, and yet she decided to forge ahead with her new career aspirations without their direct help. Instead, she uses their guidance to help guide herself into a new era of Janelle Monáe, one we are blessed to witness.

After spending 2015 on all the best records (Ego Death, Surf, and Art Angels), 2016 in all the best films (Hidden Figures, Moonlight), and 2017 at functions like the Women's March, Monáe returns to the stage we all know her from, this time as herself, a role we’ve not seen in its entirety before.

Tech motifs appear all across Monáe’s now 15-year career, an artistic flourish she used to share her visions while simultaneously overshadowing parts of herself she’d rather hide. After spending over a decade within this mainframe, she at last breaks free of its confines; the result of this is Dirty Computer, whose title speaks to the human condition as much as it does the digital age. A person, a type of biological machine, experiences upgrades, glitches, and eventually, like all mechanisms, system failure. Monáe views this neither as a benevolence or a curse, more so as a subject worth studying and celebrating.

The title track belies its grimy connotation with a set of lofty harmonies, courtesy of Brian Wilson, one of the many actual icons who lend their talents to Monáe’s latest. For all its new ideas and star-studded features which range from Prince to Zoe Kravitz, Dirty Computer stays true to Monáe’s roots in more ways than one. Longtime collaborators Deep Cotton, who worked with Monáe on The Audition and underrated Idlewild jam, “Call the Law”, have their fingers in many of the album’s tracks. Because of this Monáe wields new genres and motifs in ways that remain familiar to her listeners.

An especially important quality considering Dirty Computer is one of the most high-profile accounts of pansexuality in mainstream media, from a Black woman no less. It champions both Monáe and the identity she embraces, an identity which receives visibility and a new idol in one fell swoop. Naturally, an idol as talented as Monáe wears this identity proudly, imbuing it with funk and power pop to match her confidence.

Though it dissects insecurities and shortcomings as much as it does success, Dirty Computer unabashedly refuses to downplay or apologize for its behavior. “Take a Byte”, “Pynk”, and “Don’t Judge Me” use metaphors practically as explicit as the subjects they describe, while “Django Jane” and “I Like That” proudly commemorate Black women and individuality, respectively. She even turns the threat of annihilation into one of arousal on the Zoe Kravitz-assisted “Screwed”, rhyming “rock ‘n roll” with “birth control” and daring you to say something about it.

With this forthright attitude comes fresh ways for Monáe to play on subject matters. Lines such as “take a byte”, direct in its words, take on all sort of meaning in the CPU of Dirty Computer: it says Eat me out as much as it says Authorize this app so I can play Candy Crush, the chord descent making the line sound sensual and just a little tongue-in-cheek.

This candor comes with a minor cost in that sometimes Dirty Computer will often hit you over the head with obvious metaphors and sometimes tired sentiments. “I Got The Juice” for all its upbeat fun, is a repetitive and relatively cliched song, even if it falls outside Monáe’s usual repertoire. And for all its sonic glory, a few of the turns of phrase in “Make Me Feel” are as simple as the song’s concept of simple attraction.

That all said, the frankness of Dirty Computer may at times register as corny, but never feels weak or dishonest. Stevie Wonder puts it well in “Stevie's Dream”, saying “Don’t let your expressions, even of anger/Be confused or misconstrued.” For the most part, even when it plays in double entendres, Dirty Computer is quite straightforward. In the emotion picture version of “Pynk”, Monáe pours her heart out to Tessa Thompson in a soft yet candid interlude. It rebukes the coyness people often associate with courtship, and it works wonders.

Because in an age of catfish and fake news, pure old honesty comes across as a bigger surprise, and ultimately, a bigger payoff. A