Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer [album review]

Commentary, Music

Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer does for the Information Age what Ziggy Stardust did for the space age – namely, weave the concerns of the day into a radical tale of identity, repression, and rebellion.

Dirty Computer is set in a neon dystopia where joy exists clandestinely, and where outsiders (like protagonist Jane Doe) struggle to survive and express themselves in a society that sees them as a glitch to be erased. Sonically, the album tells this story through exuberant funk, electro-pop and R&B, with forays into rap and psychedelia (“Django Jane” and the Brian Wilson-featuring title track, respectively).

Monae’s lyrics are witty and often dual-edged, with deeper meetings buried beneath  catchy synths and funky guitars. “Crazy Classic Life” rails against double standards in the guise of a carefree pop song (“All I wanted was to break the rules like you”), and “Take a Byte” is a sensual ode to free love, set to handclaps and a shimmery disco beat.

The Zoe Kravitz-assisted “Screwed” is a politically-charged double entendre, with jubilant cries of “Let’s get screwed!” punctuated by mutters of “We’re so screwed.” Mid-track, Monae pauses to reflect on the intersections between sex, gender, and power, concluding: “Now ask yourself who’s screwing you.”

Single “Make Me Feel” is more straightforward, a ballsy come-on with a hook worthy of Prince. Similarly, “I Got the Juice” is a baudy dance eruption featuring Pharrell Williams.

There are moments of intimacy within this radical narrative. On “I Like That,” for instance, Monae recounts an incident of schoolyard cruelty with frankness and casual defiance: “I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off / And you rated me a six,” she recalls. “But even back then, with the tears in my eyes / I always knew I was the shit.”

R&B ballad “Don’t Judge Me” is a vulnerable plea for acceptance.  Later, Monae confides a fear of commitment on “So Afraid,” which is sparsely instrumented with surreal, unnerving lyrics.

There’s a lot going on here, thematically. (In the liner notes for each song, Monae cites inspirations as varied as “Scheherazade in Arabian Nights,” “the vibranium in Wakanda,” and interviews with Quincy Jones and Gloria Steinem.)

Album closer “Americans” is a multilayered satire that mixes tongue-in-cheek declarations of “I like my women / in my kitchen” with earnest political commentary and appeals for acceptance. “Love me baby, love me for who I am,” she pleads, before adding, “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land.”

On Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae curates a collection of bright-sounding songs that seem to exist within a much darker landscape, like flowers growing through cracks in the concrete. This is cyberpunk at its sunniest.

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