At times this year, 2018 has been a pretty bleak period to not only be a creative, but continue day-to-day life. One bright, sparkling star this year has been the comeback of Janelle Monáe who has dazzled with the singles from her latest record, Dirty Computer. “Being a queer black woman in America – someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker”, Janelle Monáe told Rolling Stone magazine about her sexuality before the release of the record. Indeed, the idea of freedom, both creatively, sexually and liberally, is a theme that runs through Dirty Computer, a quasi dystopian story featuring neon lights, bizarre characters and beautiful landscapes. Especially so with its reference points of everyone from Prince, who she was longtime close friends with, as well as pop greats George Clinton and Grace Jones. The record is certainly grounded in its pop sensibilities, so much so that she’s even collaborated with some of pop’s most celebrated artists, old and new, with the Brian Wilson-featuring modern soul ballad ‘Dirty Computer’ and the Pharrell Williams collaboration ‘I Got The Juice’.
In the convening years between The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer, Monáe turned her talents to acting, most famously in arguably two of the most important African American films ever; in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, the first LGBTQ film and the first film with an all-black cast to win the best picture Oscar and in Hidden Figures, about female African American Nasa employees. She also spoke passionately and fiercely at the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, in which she loudly and proudly declared, “Remember to choose freedom over fear!” However, now she’s turned her focus on her first love, making music, as well as combining all of these passions – the storytelling and glamour of filmmaking, the zeal and determination of political empowerment and the groove and polish of postmodern pop – into one beautiful, bite-sized portion of impassioned and poignant art. It would be remiss to call Dirty Computer just an album; it’s a narrative story, featuring a drive and purpose perfectly accompanied by visual aids of the music videos that mostly feature actress Tessa Thompson.
‘Django Jane’, the lead single from Dirty Computer, is where Monáe showcases another talent from her extraordinary arsenal: her rap skills. The track feels like Monáe’s call to arms; a recalcitrant revolt for the empowerment of women worldwide. “We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you earth,” she sings with fierce intensity, and she’s not done there. For African American women in particular she asserts: “Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it” and in these moments of turmoil, it’s seven words that have an incredible amount of power. There’s a personality to the song that feels distinctly Monáe, but also an incredible song for our times entirely encapsulated by: “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” Ultimately, it achieves what every pop song should strive to achieve: important lyrical content wrapped inside an irresistible pop beat.
Then, it’s pop overload with the Grimes-featuring ‘Pynk’, which sees two of the greatest 21st century pop stars come head to head in a, “Brash celebration of creation, self love, sexuality and p**** power”. Of course, in the grand scheme of the record it’s a part of its narrative function, which makes it all the more impressive that ‘Pynk’, much like most of the songs on the record, is a brilliantly technical pop number too. Not only is it a smouldering, slow-building dance anthem that’s perfect for summer but it’s also a powerful track, “That unites us all” as, “The colour found in the deepest and darkest nooks and crannies of humans everywhere.”
It’s with ‘Make Me Feel’ where Monáe truly pays homage to her hero. Monáe has stated that, “I dedicate a lot of my music to Prince, for everything he’s done for music and black people and women and men, for those who have something to say and also at the same time will not allow society to take the dirt off of them.” Ultimately, this feels like when the likes of David Bowie and Prince would make something of substance, but at the same time, could throw out singles that would have mainstream media heralding them and everyone singing along too. ‘Make Me Feel’ is a pure banger, first and foremost, and perfectly slots into the middle of Dirty Computer and heartbreakingly sees Monáe taking on that Prince-like guise.
Monáe has worn her heart on her sleeve here. She called Dirty Computer, “An extremely vulnerable album” and it does feel like a snapshot into her life but, impressively, it’s also the perfect record for our times. Much like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, or Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, this feels like a time capsule of our social landscape as it is now and it will be looked back on with immense sadness, but contemplated with an incredible amount of fondness. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take people as long to realise how fantastic it is. Put simply, it’s nothing short of iconic. After this, we’re all Dirty Computers.