Music

Janelle Monae’s Funky, Free-Thinking ‘Dirty Computer’ Celebrates The Misfits And Weirdos

Uproxx Studios / Atlantic Records

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The sci-fi rock opera of Janelle Monae’s earliest work has ended, and what’s replaced it is bold, brilliant, and some of her best work yet.

The rebellious saga of “ArchAndroid” Cindi Mayweather provided a fun and compelling metaphor but it also worked as a distracting abstraction, distancing Monae from both her message and her listeners. Where the focus should be the music and the urgent thesis of those albums, a listener could get lost trying to piece together the plot and how each song relates to the fiction, rather than their personal meaning to the listener and to Monae herself. We don’t listen to music solely to be entertained or diverted for an hour, we want to feel it, we want to be part of the story. While the Blade Runner, Metropolis-esque narrative of The Electric Lady and The ArchAndroid were interesting hooks, they had the unfortunate side effect of cluttering up the listening experience. No more.

With Dirty Computer, that gilded layer isn’t so much subtracted as it is sublimated; instead of making the high concept part of the pitch, Monae has partitioned the sci-fi themes to the accompanying “emotion picture” that hit Youtube as a companion piece to the album, letting the music stand on its own. Rather than speaking as Cindi Mayweather, Monae is singing for herself, and it makes all the difference.

Now there’s no ambiguity behind the lyrics of Prince-influenced dance jam “Make Me Feel.” We don’t have to ask whether she’s speaking for herself or her robotic stand-in. It’s all her, with the added bonus of being funky as hell. The other two singles, “Pynk” and “Django Jane,” share a similar dynamic, baring Monae’s views on femininity, sexuality, and the politics of both through both unambiguous yet layered descriptors and chest-thumping metaphors. The sly sagacity of following up the boast of “Jane” letting the “vagina have a monologue” with a literal song praising the virtues of vaginas, both as a body part and a concept, is some next-level, otherworldly slick shit.

It’s especially poignant that Monae’s kicked off all this discussion of pansexuality and freeing herself to speak her mind in defiance of the system this week, what with that Kanye West claiming up and down that he’s promoting free thought while parroting the exact talking points that prop the various systems of inequity that oppress traditionally marginalized groups like Black women. Thank goodness for Janelle Monae, who couldn’t possibly have known how harrowing the last few days would be, yet spent three years recording the exact antidote to all this muck. “I’m tired of Hoteps telling me how to feel,” she barks at the end of “Screwed.” It’s a balm to my currently Kanye-addled mind, the most appropriate “fuck you” to his half-baked proselytizing.

It’s so good to have a project every bit as smart and deep and occasionally abrasive as any of Monae’s previous, but stripped of pretense and adornment. Now isn’t the time to get cute with metaphors. It feels like the hounds are at the gates. Now is the time to state your case plainly, to leave no doubt or illusion about the tribulations being alluded to on songs like “American” and “So Afraid.” This was exactly the album we needed right when we needed it, which only underlines and bold points how important it is to speak your truth as a Black person, as a woman, as a queer person in a nation where all three and more are under attack.

Janelle Monae may be speaking to her own experience, her own hopes, dreams, fears, and love, but she’s speaking for thousands of voices — perhaps millions — that would otherwise be silenced. And not in a “Twitter was mean to me for sharing my trash opinion” way, but in that real, frightening, urgently desperate way that results from being legislated against by the powerful, dominant culture that considers you no less than an aberration, a pathology, a mistake, a disease.

The grand metaphor of Dirty Computer is that those of us who don’t conform, who refuse to conform, who cannot conform to the arbitrary standard of “normal” impressed on us by the powers that be are “dirty” — that we’re defective, broken, in need of cleansing, of erasure. Janelle Monae’s boldest statement is that those dirty computers are not going away. The world needed Dirty Computer as much as it needs dirty computers. Without them, the system becomes staid, stagnant, and falls apart. The dirty computers keep the funk alive, they push the boundaries of art and culture, and they redefine what happiness and self-love look like. They are going to be bold, they are going to continue to stand out, and they won’t accept being anything less than exactly what they are, dirty to the end.

Dirty Computer is out now via Wondaland, Bad Boy, and Atlantic Records. Listen below.

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