One of the year's biggest pop albums is finally out: Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. The coming of this audiovisual extravaganza has been impossible to miss, with deliciously addictive singles “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane” and “I Like That"; the stunning, ambitious videos that have accompanied them (from vagina pants to the prominent involvement of rumored partner Tessa Thompson); or the press whirlwind during which the famously cryptic Monáe disclosed things about herself in areas where she’s never even entertained queries before.
Dirty Computer is being hailed not just as Monáe’s most accomplished album yet, but also her most revealing. Until now, Monáe spent her time assiduously crafting an Afrofuturistic sci-fi universe that centered on the story of the android Cindi Mayweather. Now, though, Monáe has stepped out from behind Cindi and into the spotlight proper. Here’s what Dirty Computer reveals about its creator.
Janelle Monáe is done with her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, at least for now.
Since her debut EP Metropolis in 2007, Monáe has inhabited Cindi Mayweather, an android on the run from the authorities for her transgression of falling in love with a human, Anthony Greendown, fleshing out this stately story of forbidden love in an oppressive society over songs and skits on 2010’s The ArchAndroid and 2013’s The Electric Lady. In real life, too, Monáe adhered to compelling but strict scripts, like the pompadour-and-tuxedo ensemble she adopted as her performance "uniform," in reference to her humble background and in solidarity with the working class. But somewhere between the joyous music videos spawned by The Electric Lady and Monáe’s one-off, radio-ready 2015 single “Yoga,” she started to push beyond these self-circumscriptions. And now Monáe has fully set the Cindi character and her narrative aside. That doesn’t mean, however, that Dirty Computer signals discontinuity in Monáe’s oeuvre.
She's still into robots, though.
Instead of the android, the central image of the album is the "dirty," virus-infected computer, a dysfunctional machine to be fixed. Here, Monáe has adapted the robotic premise of her previous work to our impossibly wired time where the line isn’t between humans and androids, but between clean computers and dirty ones, since technology has become all but indispensable to our lives.
She's been listening to pop radio.
Any fan of Monáe’s knows she’s had hooks and melodies for years, whether it was Metropolis standout “Many Moons” or breakthrough single “Tightrope.” Even “Cold War” can be considered a pop gem with its soaring, emotional chorus. But Dirty Computer looks poised to be her winning pop album. It’s partly a function of its sound, which is dialed tightly into our current pop landscape: Monáe has exchanged the orchestral overtures and shelved the slower, more stately material for contemporary textures and flourishes. See: the dandelion-light synths and finger snaps that endow Grimes collab “Pynk” with a Swiftian vibe, and the crisp trap-influenced percussion that gives the chorus of “Crazy, Classic Life” its bite. Pharrell guests on the tropical, bouncy “I Got the Juice,” while the R&B smokiness of “I Like That” opens up a space for Monáe to marshal vulnerability into strength. And on “Django Jane,” she takes an entire song to let the world know something one might have only been able to glean from verses embedded in prior songs: that she can outrap some of your favorite MCs.
But Monáe’s no ahistorical culture vulture. She synthesizes sounds people love now, but she’s also looping in pop people have long loved. Beach Boy Brian Wilson gifts golden backing melodies to the spacey title track, while Stevie Wonder provides guidance and wisdom on “Stevie’s Dream,” the only nameplate voiceover on the album.
She still has Prince in her life.
Of course, Monáe’s late and beloved mentor Prince is a spiritual presence throughout the unquestionably funky and spectacularly sexy Dirty Computer. The "Kiss"-like riff and sensuality of “Make Me Feel” feels so Prince-ly that people thought he had cowritten it (Monáe debunked this in a recent Rolling Stone cover story). Prince’s influence was more nebulous, but no less important, Monáe said in a New York Times Magazine profile—his death made her rethink the way she’d been using Cindi Mayweather to avoid presenting her true self to the world. “I couldn’t fake being vulnerable,” she said. “In terms of how I will be remembered, I have anxiety around that, like the whole concept about what I’ll be remembered for.”
She might have a little Beyoncé in her life, too.
Perhaps the biggest signal that Monáe is out to make her mark as a pop star is the resources that have been poured into visualizing the world of Dirty Computer, from the astonishing aesthetics of the individual music videos released thus far to the sumptuous, feature-length "emotion picture" televised on MTV and BET last night. It’s not difficult here to identify the impact of Beyoncé, who shifted cultural paradigms and gave fans ample material to parse and savour with the visual album Lemonade. And just like Beyoncé (who made the "visual album" B’Day back in 2006), Monáe has long prized striking imagery—just look at the electrifying video for “Many Moons,” which was released almost a decade ago. But Monáe also seems to know that now, substantial visual messaging is the step forward in today’s pop landscape. It’s not just about music-making, but world-building—and Monáe is excelling at that.
She is a proud American, who can also call Donald Trump "the devil" at the same time.
Monáe has never been shy about the anti-injustice orientation of her music and her career—“Hell You Talmbout,” the 2015 protest song she made with her Wondaland Records roster, names and honors black victims of police shootings. As a queer, black woman with working class roots, Monáe has known (and knows) oppression in America, and has been pouring her allegiance to the suffering and struggling into Cindi Mayweather’s story of love and defiance in the distinctly dystopic Metropolis. On Dirty Computer, Monáe turns squarely to the source material, which has grown too toxic to ignore.
This is Monáe’s most America-facing album yet, from the defiant, pussy-praising clapback to 45 on “I Got the Juice” to the interpolation of the Declaration of Independence on “Crazy, Classic Life." And then there is the closing verse of “Screwed”: “The devil met with Russia and they just made a deal / We was marching through the street, they were blocking every bill.”
On the closing track “Americans”, Monáe declares herself a proud patriot, but in the vein of James Baldwin, who in Notes of a Native Son wrote, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This track isn’t titled “America”, but “Americans”: Here, Monáe remains dedicated to those who are dehumanized and threatened systemically by the United States despite the values it ostensibly upholds.
She has drafted a social contract.
A light-footed bop, “Americans” also holds a serious message about what nonmale Americans, queer Americans, Americans of color, poor Americans, et al., are owed. A spoken bridge and outro from an unnamed man provides a rhetorical, almost itemized list: “Until women can get equal pay for equal work… Until same-gender-loving people can be who they are… Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head… Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful… Until Latinos and Latinas don't have to run from walls—this is not my America.” Monáe chirpily ends the song, and the album, by presenting America this new social contract: “Please sign your name on the dotted line.”
She is, as we now know, pansexual.
Monáe has spoken openly about how Dirty Computer is an album she’s avoided making for a long time. “I knew I needed to make this album, and I put it off and put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe,” she said in the New York Times profile. In the past, Monáe was famously aloof when it came to her personal life, often semiseriously talking about only dating androids when asked about her love life. She’s opened up considerably since, telling Rolling Stone that she is pansexual and playfully casting rumored paramour Tessa Thompson as a romantic foil in her emotion picture as well as the music videos for “Make Me Feel” and “Pynk.” Between “Take a Byte,” “Screwed,” “Pynk,” “Make Me Feel,, and “I Got the Juice,” Monáe has also stepped into a newly liberated sexual space on Dirty Computer.
She's still wary of opening up too much, though.
At the same time, anyone running a comb through Dirty Computer for juicy details is going to come up short. Monáe continues to remain circumspect about the whos and whats of her dating life, and on the album she makes clear that she still teeters on the line between disguise and disclosure (see the nakedly conflicted “Don’t Judge Me”). This, however, is less a failing in an album already overflowing with material, and more about Monáe’s refusal to accept the role of tabloid fascination that public figures trying to live their sexual truth seem doomed to take on.
"I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you," she told Rolling Stone. Monáe wants to inspire and comfort as an artist without sacrificing her life as a person, with its private joys and sorrows. That should be more than enough for us.