Music

Janelle Monae’s Grammy-Nominated ‘Dirty Computer’ Is The Album Black Women Need Right Now

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“I go forth alone and stand as 10,000.” — Maya Angelou

As the opener of Janelle Monae’s newest record bursts into its second track, the fluorescent pop-rap fusion of “Crazy Classic Life,” I can hear traces of the expansive synth-crazed ‘80s I was born into. Legwarmers and big hair; Phil Collins and Boy George; Flashdance and Pretty In Pink. And, of course, the way the song’s booming, frolicky production is complicated by lyrics of impending doom, “So if the world should end tonight / I had a crazy, classic life.” That last line of that otherwise upbeat hook feels holy, immortal — and timely.

When I listened to Dirty Computer for the first time, it was like hearing my Black, blue-collar, southern girlhood set to a soundtrack of big, bright ‘80s pop — only this time with the mic in my hands. For all my infatuation with the music and culture of the ‘80s, there had been a gulf between me and Sixteen Candles’ Molly Ringwald, between me and even the inevitably doomed Culture Club hook I still remember by heart: “Time won’t give me time…” Even as I watched the culture from somewhere outside it and sang along to its music, I wondered if there could ever be a time when the gulf between us would lessen — a moment in which the culture I idolized might fully be mine.

Beginning with the Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP, set in the year 2719, Janelle Monae introduced her alter-ego Cyndi Mayweather, a genre-hopping, Black female android who was being hunted for the crime of falling in love with a human. Cyndi’s epic cyborg saga developed further on 2010’s critically acclaimed The ArchAndroid — a supersonic admixture of R&B and funk threaded with rock, euro-folk, rap, and cabaret — and a project that cemented Janelle as the kind of artist my college professor would call a “cat on a hot tin roof.” Or, more directly, a transgressor of genre lines, lyrically, visually, and sonically.

Noted for bringing Afrofuturism and science fiction into R&B and pop in a big way, Monae’s music has been compared to George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, her beloved former mentor Prince, and Sun Ra. Over the course of a decade and three project releases, Monae built an Afrofuturist femme-ruled universe in which she reigned as “funkstress,” defying easy categorization and, according to scholars, re-framing a historically male-centered Afrofuturism like Clinton’s into a neo-Afrofuturism that centers black women — an extraordinary feat for an artist still as early in her career as Monae.

On Dirty Computer, which is considered by some to be a sort of prequel to Cyndi Mayweather’s universe, Monae’s decade-long Afrofuturist world-building collides into biomythography, a literary genre that merges history, fact, and myth. Coupled with the fact that the album’s massive Grammy nominations precede Cyndi Mayweather’s lush 2719 “cybersoul” funkscape by exactly 700 years, the project’s timing feels mythic and magical — as if Janelle can manipulate time and space themselves to reflect her reality.

Audre Lorde coined the term “biomythography” in 1982 to house her newest project Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. The self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” created the category in response to the limitations of the genres she’d been tethered to her whole career. A convergence of history, memoir, and myth, biomythography was a space where Lorde could represent her queered, Black, working-class womanhood without the socio-political limitations of established genres that were already irrevocably male-centered and heteronormative minded. Within this new form, Lorde created a space where she could be feminine and masculine to a degree that was unacceptable to the “mainstream” literary canon or, put more simply, be her entire self.

In the case for Dirty Computer as biomythography, the “myth” is embedded in the album’s Android saga backstory. Because of it, we can see three women in Dirty Computer’s cover art: Cyndi Mayweather, Janelle Monae, and Jane 57821. Here, myth and magic create a space for the reclamation of female autonomy flying in the face of powerful, oppressive men and contextualizing female rebellion against misogyny as both an epic and a timely battle. Consider the pointed lyrical rebuttal of “I Got the Juice.” In this instance, pussy is mythical, “divine,” and has political power: It will “grab you back” and give you “pussy cataracts.” This phrasing is threaded with myth, but also functions as a real response to one of the most misogynist comments in America’s pop culture memory.

Dirty Computer’s accompanying emotion picture opens amid a cultural “cleaning” of epic proportions. As mugshot-like photos of citizens appear one after the other, Jane 57821 narrates: “They started calling us computers. People began vanishing. And the cleaning began.” Jane explains the qualifications for said cleaning — “You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated…” — before an all-important concept emerges in the exposition’s final word, appearing on the screen just as Jane concludes: “If you were dirty, it was only a matter of time.”

Time is, in fact, the major difference between Dirty Computer and its Android saga predecessors. Monae croons in the album’s opener: “I’ll love you in this space and time,” and unlike her past work, this album’s footing is firmly in the present. In a conversation with Billboard Monae said of the project: “Overall, I wanted to reflect what’s happening in the streets right now, and what might happen tomorrow if we don’t band together and fight for love.” This is not Cyndi Mayweather’s Afrofuturist funkscape future: This is Jane 57821’s buoyant, dirty, complicated pop present where she must take full ownership of the narrative.

Dirty Computer also feels biomythographical because of its position in real time and also because of its insistence on complete ownership. Lorde created biomythography out of a very real urgency to fully manifest her multifaceted identity, to define her work as she pleased, and Dirty Computer takes the same stand. On songs like “Americans” in which present day fact and historical memory collide, Monae takes “Americans” to task for racism, sexism, and heterosexism, transforming the word “American” into a loaded, often pejorative descriptor, but still insisting matter of factly: “I’m American.” This seeming contradiction re-frames the term to center the perspective of those historically oppressed and shows Monae, again, claiming full ownership of all facets of her own narrative.

On “Django Jane,” Monae uses rap not only as a means of “leveling up” to the male-dominated hip-hop industry, proving she can flow as well as any of the boys, but as a means of unearthing rap’s historical self — as a sociopolitical expression, from the mouth of a queer, dark-skinned Black woman, no less — tucked neatly into what is overall a sonically pop-oriented record. She dedicates her Emmy to the “highly melanated / arch-Android orchestrated” before the thread of inevitable doom resurfaces: “…tuck the pearls in / just in case the world end.” Taken together, the lines celebrate Blackness at the same time they express a hyper-awareness of its dangers.

In the same Billboard conversation where Monae references the album’s timeliness, she also says: “I’ve been inspired by the people that came before me, the artists who pushed the limits of where music can go and how it can be represented visually.” It goes without saying that Monae understands her place in the present historical moment — and that she also sees herself in the long lineage of Black women before her. And though Dirty Computer is Janelle’s most personal album, the very idea of myth implies a shrouded-ness; its presence next to fact infers a degree of mystery, that even some of the facts will be veiled just as the album cover’s deified pop icon. On “I Like That” when Monae calls herself a “walking contradiction” who is “factual and fiction,” she leaves room not just for ambiguity, but the ambiguity of her choosing.

Dirty Computer, like Lorde’s Zami, takes the fact and history of Black suffering, joy, and being and wraps it in the magic of myth, making legendary meaning of the “meaningless” lives of Black women both past and present, from Lorde and Monae to their working-class mothers and beyond. In biomythography, one woman stands for many; the not one, but three possible faces we see in Dirty Computer’s album art. The elusive ambiguity that marks Dirty Computer is also its purest artistic element: Its intent, as part myth, is to memorialize the Black queer working women who were buried in unmarked pop culture graves before Monae came along to valorize them. Monae’s true work is to allow those at the paralyzed margins to take their rightful place in history and legend, creating a loving, inclusive center within the finicky confines of a bleeding pop beating heart specifically for those who have been traditionally excluded.

Dirty Computer is as important as a pop album as it is a historical moment, because it dares to center the personal (and, therefore, political) struggle of a dark-skinned, Black, pansexual woman for a pop audience not traditionally welcoming of “The Other.” Dirty Computer says that the complex embodiment of my extremes is not only possible but heroic. It bridges the gulf between me and popular culture — insists that its music can be fully mine.

Whether it wins any of the many Grammys it’s been nominated for or not, Dirty Computer is the past, present, and future aligning like stars — a biomythographically infused pop album that sings, raps, and leaps in celebration of infinitely complex outcasts like Lorde and Monae who birth new genres in the face of opposition. As Maya Angelou wrote in homage to her foremothers: “I go forth alone and stand as 10,000.” Wherever Monae lands on Grammy night, she already shines as a mythic many — Lorde and all our gloriously queer, complicated ancestors in her constellation.

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