Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer landed at No. 2 on our 2018 critic poll’s best albums list. Check out the poll here, and our thoughts on the album’s impact below.
Although Janelle Monae spent years at the forefront of musical innovation, 2018 was the year she finally broke through in terms of notoriety. It’s almost ironic that when her early work was defined by symbolism, she stayed just a step ahead of floundering. Now that her deeply personal album Dirty Computer made her the symbol — for sexual and creative freedom, for what can be accomplished as an unabashed musical rebel — she is not only flourishing but helping to define a new paradigm, in which her identity informs her musical one and both are accepted and lauded by critics and fans alike.
That new musical standard bleeds through the lyrics on Dirty Computer‘s most focused songs, like “I Like That,” where she sums up what may well constitute her entire mission statement: “I remember when you called me weird,” she intones in the third verse, reminiscing on the outcast status that came to define her later artistic iconoclasm. “I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off and you rated me a six / I was like, “Damn” / But even back then with the tears in my eyes, I always knew I was the sh*t.”
In the realm of hip-hop, to which Janelle’s music has always owed at least some of its boisterous influence, that “I’m the sh*t” attitude is vital, encouraged, and celebrated. Likewise, the music of Prince, Janelle’s mentor and collaborator until his death in 2016 during the recording of Dirty Computer, runs hot and proud with the chest-puffed “f*ck you” charisma that allowed him to strut in heels and shake his ass in chaps. However, for a Black woman — especially in such a mercurial genre as the amorphous pop/R&B melange that Dirty Computer inhabits — those traits can be anathema to success.
Just look at Janet Jackson. Half a second of exposed (and decorated) nipple was all it took to effectively banish the one-time queen of pop from the mainstream stage until very recently, even as her influence lived on through performers like Madonna, Aaliyah, and Ciara. While late-90s starlets like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera borrowed liberally from Janet’s formula of uninhibited sexuality to build the foundations of their respective careers, they always had to balance it with a coquettish, feigned innocence, threading the needle of society’s double standards as their male counterparts peacocked and swaggered with an air of invincibility. Remember, Justin Timberlake returned to the Super Bowl Halftime Show stage — and basically disowned Janet Jackson in the weeks leading up to his performance.
To hell with all that, says Janelle’s masterpiece of self-acceptance. If a half-second of a breast is vilified, let’s see what they do with an entire ode to the “Pynk” parts of women’s anatomy. On “Screwed,” she takes aim at the double standard itself: “Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas / While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca-Colas,” she snarls. While glimmers of the Afrofuturistic space opera of her previous albums linger in the short film that accompanies Dirty Computer, the music itself foregoes the obtuse metaphor and goes for the gusto, holding forth on current events and social disorder with the same biting wit and imagination redirected toward making the ferocious messages digestible, danceable, and fun.