On “Sally Ride” Janelle Monae coos: “Wake up, Mary, have you heard the news? Wake up, Mary, you have the right to choose.” Monae is speaking to the Madonna, The Virgin Mary, willing the feminine symbol of Christianity from her sleep, shaking the floor of Christian dogmatism with two sentences. Monae invites us to reassess our feelings about the narrative of a woman being told by a patriarchal God she is to birth the savior of humanity — without consent. These two sentences bring a feminist context to the Christ story, returning autonomy back to the woman, but they also act as double entendre, which is the source of their power.
Janelle’s honey-soaked voice crooning that Mary “has the right to choose” is an obvious commentary on her pro-life stance and a subversive political move, bringing the icon Virgin Mary, who is closely associated with The Catholic Church, a historically anti-abortion force, into a pro-choice conversation. The passion of Janelle Monae is to use double entendre to expose and express singular truths about love, justice, equality, and freedom. To understand the double meanings of Janelle Monae, it’s necessary to understand the artists who came before her, living dual lives in order to express their truest selves.
Missy Elliot lived as an afro-futurist plaything, using hip-hop as her stomping ground while simultaneously existing as a fat, black woman hell-bent on transcending patriarchal, white supremacist standards about beauty and power. Jazz composer and bandleader Sun-Ra lived dually — and rather infamously — as a black man fighting against racism in America and a self-professed alien from a far-off planet. Earth, Wind, & Fire were black friends creating music that expressed feelings of love, joy, celebration, and heartbreak even as they also saw themselves as elements that literally sustained the world.
Duality in black art and life is not new, but necessary. As far back as W.E.B. DuBois, Black intellectuals have been writing about the double-consciousness that black people must embody in order to sustain themselves. In art, often black people must also see themselves as what we are in this socio-political reality but also see ourselves as something bigger and more abstract than what society and our flesh offers us. No other artist of our era has done this with as much mastery or invoked so much fascination as Janelle Monae.
To attempt to be subversive is one thing, but to successfully subvert is another. Janelle Monae is the kind of rare artist that shakes the foundation of what makes us feel comfortable as a people. In both her music and visuals, Janelle Monae disrupts the status quo with ease. Monae’s particular genius draws on the knowledge of what our collective sanity relies on, and what will break that foundation. And when Monae breaks it, she finds her own peace in this disturbance — which is why the music is just so damn good. She skates effortlessly and confidently between soundscapes and ideas because society’s chaos is the rebel’s playground. She is the android. She is the dirty computer. Janelle Monae does not make art to disturb the comfortable, she makes it to comfort herself and the disturbed.
In “The Archandroid” she transcends times and genre in order to tell us the story about black women and all genres of love, which are under attack, via the story of an android named Cindi Mayweather, who is being hunted for her ability to love. In this metaphor, she exposes a truth that if said plainly might be more jarring; through the narrative of an android who has learned how to love, Monae offers us the idea that black women and their need to find and create love have been hunted and systemically annihilated. Janelle Monae illustrates her double life through her art as she offers intensive criticism of modern surveillance and America’s history of racialized sexism, all couched within a brilliant sci-fi treat.
Throughout her career, this role has always been the space she wanted to occupy, even on her first EP, Metropolis. On tracks like “Violet Stars Happy Hunting” she sings about how she is an “alien from outer space, cyborg with a race, heart, or a mind.” Before the legalization of gay marriage, she sang about being chased for loving. This narrative offers an indictment of the criminalization of loving that has followed black people (read: miscegenation laws) and queer people in America. Through this song, she was able to fit in a radical critique about the history (and current state) of the society we live.
“Robot love is queer!” a caller shouts during a skit on Janelle Monae’s sophomore album, The Electric Lady. Here she continues the narrative of Cindi Mayweather and expands the metaphor to all marginalized identities. This is the generous thing about marginalization: The extremely specific experience can often be universal amongst all people that have been dominated. Now, as she prepares to release her third full-length album, Dirty Computer, the stakes feel higher for Janelle Monae and her poeticism. She has returned to the music realm at a time when our current political climate feels even more urgent, even more dismal. Her response? To bring her knack for metaphor closer to her real existence.
With “Django Jane,” Monae does not list the accomplishments or concerns of a robot from a far-off land. She expresses her concerns. She brags about her accomplishments. She takes off her sci-fi makeup and uses the double entendre to further expose herself to her public. Monae has used the character Cyndi Mayweather as an avatar for her life and ideas, but here, Monae is speaking as herself. She is using a nickname, but not attempting to create another character or world that might distance us from the “real” Janelle. She is speaking about things we know she has done and her hometown, and uses “Django Jane” to drive home exactly who she is and who represents, not to skew it. After nearly perfecting the art of the double entendre Monae is now more interested in a direct, singular, and almost confessional artistic expression.
In fact, Monae seems most interested in using her art and herself to better contextualize the political radical theory she is offering to the listener, instead of creating worlds and characters to distance herself from them. In the video for “Pynk” she adopted a pro-woman and campy, queer feel, using her oddness to invite people to better understand who she really is. She wears a costume shaped like a vagina — which is eccentric, but wildly invitational — to engage herself as a vulnerable and “naked” person; she chose to wear the fashion piece and take on any criticism and speculation that it might bring along.
The same can be said about the music and video for another early track, “Make Me Feel,” that tells the story of bisexuality. Monae — without creating a character independent of her personality — has chosen to play the main character in the video. This forces her public to not only think she is creating for them, but also that she’s revealing something about herself and her interior life.
That same personal vulnerability reaches a peak on Monae’s trap-inspired track, “I Like That,” where she relays a specific example of youthful alienation: “I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off and you rated me a six.” As Monae recalls her more humiliating school days, she give up her signature metaphorical lyrics and becomes downright autobiographical. To be raw and honest in a political era that has seemed to collapse into fantasies and gaslighting is one of the more inspiring moves an artist like Monae can make. Because of the more dire political moment it feels we’re living in, Janelle Monae becomes an artist with an intense responsibility to express the anxieties of a generation rendered rejected and fatalistic, if for no reason other than she decided to do so when it was less popular or deemed unnecessary.
Now, she steers an artistic ship that encourages and teaches listeners to create while under dark reign. It’s fascinating that her answer is not to hide or run into fantasy, but to get naked, get more vulnerable, and embrace the gravity of reality. The most powerful part about this era of Janelle Monae is watching her become the ultimate architect of duality: She will now have two worlds to visit and operate from. For the rest of her career, she can choose which mode best fits what she feels the need to express. One thing is for sure: Whether she chooses fantasy or reality, her art will always point back to her own, radical truth.
Dirty Computer is out 4/27 via Bad Boy Records. Pre-order it here.