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.
“And we gon’ start a motherf*ckin’ pussy riot,” she proclaims on “Django Jane,” an even bolder declaration of independence and self-identity than she ever attempted on albums like Electric Lady and Archandroid. “Or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet / Look at that, I guarantee I got ’em quiet / Look at that, I guarantee they all inspired.” It’s worth noting that this fiery invective comes in the era of #MeToo and the Women’s March against Donald Trump’s overt sexism. “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back,” she warns on “I Got The Juice.” Dirty Computer is both a reflection of the wider cultural sentiment and its amplifier, blasting back at generations of ingrained gender double standards.
There have been plenty of moments in pop music where women were able to stand in their truth and celebrate themselves so unabashedly and confrontationally, but looking back, it seems like they were few and far between. It seems like they were measured against how much they could get away with before they bumped into the glass wall of acceptable behavior and were forced to reel it in or face retribution. “Girl power” was always fine — in moderation, in certain spaces, at certain times.
Dirty Computer is the embodiment of all the unspoken, unwritten, unfair gray areas surrounding those boundaries of pleasantry and propriety. It flips the whole map inside out and throws it in the establishment’s big, stupid, bigoted, misogynistic face. It makes space for the nonconformists, the misfits, and the red letter As of the world. Janelle Monae — not Cindi Mayweather, the android persona she invented for the first arc of her musical journey — finally got her Metropolis-inspired robot revolution when she reminded us all of our true humanity, in all its glitchy glory.
Dirty Computer is out now via Bad Boy Records/WEA International. Get it here.