Janelle Monáe – “Make Me Feel”
Following several features on the big screen, the Off-Broadway-gone-rapper, Janelle Monáe, has just released her third studio album, Dirty Computer. This funk-infused album pulls together elements of 2000’s soft-pop, samples of MLK and Stevie Wonder, and afrofuturist themes to create a breezy record steeped in groove and social relevance.
Coupled with the release, The Kansas City singer has aired an adjoining film on MTV and BET and will be embarking on a continental tour this June.
What can I say, Dirty Computer is classic Janelle Monáe. The singer dons her usual android-facade while painting pictures of a dystopian present. Her voice glides over subdued synths, and Funkadelic guitar jingles and any one of the tracks would feel at home on a Prince record. This isn’t a surprise since the legend had been collaborating with Janelle on the album, prior to his death.
Janelle Monáe – “I Like that”
The album’s title track, “Dirty Computer” features Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson. Wilson and Monáe croon in a mellow buzz of “feel-good” pop that comes early and is over surprisingly fast for a title track.
This gets swapped out for a sample of MLK‘s “I have a dream” speech in the song, “Crazy, Classic, Life.” Monáe frames King’s words with a modern dream of sex-positive empowerment:
“Young, back wild and free, naked in a limousine. We don’t need another ruler, all of my friends are kings. I’m not America’s nightmare, I’m an American dream.”
Monáe stacks the easy groove of “Dirty Computer” against “Crazy, Classic, Life’s” earnest social message in a way that carries through the album. The songstress delivers syrupy-sweet melodies likening humans to dusty old Dells, while making a call to action to all involved in helping or hurting the social imbalance.
Monáe weds the album’s dueling themes best in the dystopian track, “Screwed” (Featuring Zoë Kravitz). Laid back 80’s synths and swishy guitar contrast Monáe as she uses Armageddon to justify an anytime, anyplace orge-fest. “Bombs are dropping in the streets” and “it’s your birthday.” From this Monáe concludes, “You’ve fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down, let’s get screwed.” Janelle allegedly wrote the song the day after Trump was elected.
Monáe continues with this post-apocalyptic theme in the track “So Afraid,” where she sings vignettes of characters edging impending doom. Chains rattle in the background as a guitar riff reminiscent of Radiohead plods along. Monáe admits she is “afraid of losing you,” but the singer’s world-building makes “So Afraid” too big to just be a generic “lost love” song. The track is eventually carried to a melancholic climax before sinking away to nothing.
In the track “Django Jane,” the songstress calls out fakes news, white privilege, and man-splaining.
Janelle Monáe – “Django Jane”
She then counters the negative with the hopeful track “Pynk” (featuring Grimes), where she highlights the universal skin color, pink, which lives beneath all eyelids, hearts, and hands.
Janelle Monáe – “Pynk”
The final track of Dirty Computer, “Americans,” is a snarky jibe at modern America that sounds more like the finale of a Broadway musical than an album closer. “Americans” ticks all the boxes needed to be placed beside Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” on the list of satirical songs about American exceptionalism.
Despite Monáe’s critiques, “Americans” ends Dirty Computer on a hopeful note. Monáe frames issues like the wage gap, gay rights, and police brutality not as unstoppable evils to rage against, but as palpable challenges that can/will be overcome.
On the whole, Dirty Computer is a move away from Monáe’s robo-woman moniker in exchange for a more relatable sound and message. At a time when many are choosing to embrace or disavow their country entirely, Monáe seems to be touting a complicated mix of spite and pride in her America. As though their was an algorithm for this type of thing, Monáe strikes a perfect balance between cushy groove and substance; what else would you expect from a rationally-minded AI?