“We come in peace, but we mean business.” In a Grammy night that crackled with the promise of political reckoning, for artists of color seeking better balance in the distribution of the Recording Academy’s most prestigious awards and for women speaking out against predatory industry men, singer Janelle Monáe’s stern introduction to Kesha’s star-studded, heartbreaking performance of “Praying” stood out. In a flash, Monáe celebrated the industry women she counts among her peers and, in the same breath, warned disreputable men in power that if they don’t change their ways, the women they’re mistreating will simply have to rearrange the music business themselves.
This is a message Monáe has been driving home consistently, albeit abstractly at times, in her music for the last ten years. Her Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society is a collective of forward-thinking musicians that includes the successful rapper/singer Jidenna, singer-guitarist Roman GianArthur, the funk-rock two-piece Deep Cotton, and the vocal duo St. Beauty. Monáe’s 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and her major label albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady comprise one of the most ambitious musical concept projects this side of the emo-prog unit Coheed and Cambria’s decade-long multimedia “Amory Wars” saga. In the “Metropolis” epic, Monáe plays Cindi Mayweather, a Christlike android figure trying to save a future fascist world of humans and servile bots after falling in love with a mortal.
For years, Monáe let the grace notes in the story speak for her. Cindi’s fight against a government that ordered its population into a caste system, where the circumstances of one’s birth dictated who (or what) they could love and where they ought to live, presented a strong parable for divisions along lines of race, class, and sexual orientation in the real world. With Cindi as her avatar, Monáe could be outspoken and political at a reduced cost to her personal life. She could be opinionated without defining herself. She played the character perhaps too well; her persona carried a whiff of humanoid unknowability, even if her stage performances connected her, through hard work and raw talent, to a tradition of black musical polymaths stretching back through André 3000, Janet Jackson, Prince, Diana Ross, and James Brown. Monáe’s records were great, meanwhile, but they struggled to find a commercial footing deserving of the sterling quality of their tailoring. Some fans felt she could get more back from giving more of herself.
Today’s new Dirty Computer is a brave unveiling of the pride, loves, fears, and concerns beneath Cindi Mayweather’s metallic chassis, an introduction, after all these years, to the real Janelle Monáe. Dirty Computer is an album and an “emotion picture,” both poignant and smartly referential, that unwraps the real-life concerns that informed the ideology of the early records, like Peter Gabriel setting aside the elaborate costumes and allegorical songwriting of his early work and breaking hearts with So’s “In Your Eyes” and “Don’t Give Up.” Fans of Monáe’s “Metropolis” story will latch onto the techno-fascist themes and dramatic headpieces of Dirty Computer’s visual component, and cranks who remarked that Janelle’s music was “too weird” or “not personal enough” will delight in the fearless queer black feminism radiating from the new songs.
Janelle Monáe’s music has always felt cinematic in scope, from plot-heavy records like “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!!!” and “Locked Inside” to imaginary set pieces like Neon Valley Street and the Philip K. Dick–themed Electric Sheep Nightclub. As a film, Dirty Computer is a loving adaptation of a great story that works hard to get it right. “Metropolis” was a sage mix of the alienation animating synth-pop classics like Gary Numan “Are Friends Electric?” and Blade Runner’s central question of whether it is flesh or drive that makes us human. Dirty Computer rolls in nods to Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as it captures and reprograms Janelle’s protagonist Jane 57821 by deleting all of her memories.
Monáe, directors Chuck Lightning (of Deep Cotton) and Andrew Donoho (of videos by Twenty-one Pilots and Raury), and their co-writers and choreographers know their shit. Dirty Computer is brimming with visual nods to psychedelic, surrealist films like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, and also to street art, punk fashion, African royalty, and music history. Monáe sings her new song “Crazy, Classic, Life” in the back seat of a convertible wearing a studded leather jacket and braids twisted up into buns, like a punk-rock Chun-Li. Later, she frolics in a white dress like Madonna in the ’80s, borrows vibes from Prince’s “Kiss” with “Make Me Feel,” and hits a stage with a guitar in tow for a performance of “Screwed” that calls back to the band of women featured in the video for Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.”
Dirty Computer cleverly arranges these performance vignettes as flashbacks, memories being scrubbed from Jane’s circuit boards before reassignment. The time-travel conceit separates Dirty Computer from the more dreamlike and impressionistic staging of recent visual albums like Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Where Lemonade laid its breathtaking poetry, dance, and performance-art sequences out like metaphysical manifestations of Bey’s rage, Dirty Computer is, at its root, a list of ways that strong, young, black, queer women terrify the world just by existing, and a rebuke to the work that goes into silencing their voices.
(When you realize that Jane’s only “crime” was enjoying what looked to be a carefree triad relationship with her two partners Zen and Ché, played by the actress Tessa Thompson and the model Jayson Aaron, the systematic destruction of a string of moments of happiness shared between the three of them is transformed into commentary on the horrors of conversion therapy. Jane’s story is especially poignant considering Janelle has just come out as pansexual in an interview this week that included a photo of her in a shirt that says “The Rumors Are True.” She is believed to be dating Thompson, but she won’t say whether she is or not, as she needn’t. Openness does not require full disclosure.)
As a stand-alone album, Dirty Computer dramatizes these issues as sharply as Monáe’s speech at the Grammys did. “Crazy, Classic, Life” finds the singer pining for a life that’s “young, black, wild, and free.” The scalding-hot rap at the end of “Screwed” complains of a “hundred men telling me cover up my areolas / While they blocking equal pay, sipping on they Coca-Colas” and closes with a weary sigh of, “I’m tired of hoteps trying to tell me how to feel.” “Django Jane” gets proactive: “We gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot / Or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet.” “I Like That” fires a killshot at a middle-school bully that tried to make Monáe feel bad about her looks: “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 shit.” The message is that you’ll die stressed and unfulfilled if you blow your life waiting on other people’s approval. The message is to build your own kingdom on sturdy ground, and watch them sweat when they realize that they can’t tear it down.
Janelle Monáe’s specific gift is serving this message sweetly. Dirty Computer is as much a celebration of love as a threat to powerful merchants of hate. “Pynk” is the best thinly veiled ode to the vagina since Frank Ocean muttered “cotton candy … Majin Buu” on Channel Orange’s “Pink Matter.” In a better world, “Pynk”’s bubbly production and soaring melodies would be as inescapable in public as a new Taylor Swift song. “Screwed” is joyous funk-pop in spite of the disorder in its lyrics. The chorus line — “You fucked the world up now, and we’ll fuck it all back down” — might be the most gleefully erotic plot for world domination ever pitched.
In a week where we witnessed the apparent downfall of a litany of powerful entertainment industry men from Nas and Kanye West to Bill Cosby and Tom Brokaw, torching everything and starting all over again doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Janelle Monáe is a keen mind and a dazzling performer with a sense of her place not only in the world at large, but in the continuum of popular music. She is the only artist who would think to consult with Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams, Grimes, and Prince in the making of a new album and one of few who packs the versatility to match wits with them all without getting bowled over. She is not afraid to address systemic inequality in all its pervasive forms inside and outside of her music, and she just might send you off with a bop that makes you dance and cry at the same time. It’s time for new legends. Crown her king.