Sunday 6 May 2018

Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer

Janelle Monáe is an artist who works in concepts and metaphors. Her previous two albums centred on the narrative of an alter-ego android - Cyndi Mayweather - as a route to explore ideas of identity in a digital world.

That cyber theme continues more forcefully than ever on 'Dirty Computer'. "Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me," she sings on the opening title track, while on Take A Byte she uses a computerised pun as a path to self-realisation.

Yet this album is the first to not be part of the Cyndi Mayweather narrative. It might be trite to say, but this really is the true, unfiltered Janelle Monáe no longer hiding behind the facade of a concept.

What follows is, fittingly, an album about liberation. Black liberation. Gender liberation. Sexual liberation. The freedom of all people to simply be themselves.

The smooth, seductive I Like That is a celebration of difference, but it's the vibrant Crazy, Classic, Life that most explicitly examines these themes. "Young, black, wild and free," she sings at the start, later "I am not America's nightmare, I am the American Dream." It's specifically American identity that's reclaimed on 'Dirty Computer', most apparent of all on the celestial closer Americans that criticises the country's racist traditions. "Love me baby, love me for who I am," she sings before repeating "I'm American, I'm American, I'm American."

And it's not just the liberation of the audience that's explored, but of Monáe herself. Prior to the album release, Monáe came out publicly as pansexual. There's newfound sexual freedom here in abundance.

Take queer anthem Pynk that pairs cheekily provocative lyrics with a sweet, girlish vocal that eventually cries out in orgasmic ecstasy - a song paired with a video of iconic female imagery. The guitar-heavy Screwed is a double entendre on sex and the state of the nation. I Got The Juice is about owning sexuality, Monáe spitting the line "If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back" in a nod against Trump. Most biting of all is Django Jane, a searing feminist monologue.

Lead single Make Me Feel may be a more straightforward feelgood anthem, but as a collaboration with the late Prince it has informed the sound of much of the album (not to mention Monáe's career as a whole). The up-tempo funk rock sound is heavily Prince-inspired, but she's also acquired his ability to bend and mould genres. There are elements of electro, R&B, soul, gospel and pop here in a wildly inventive mix, something only aided by her choice of powerful black (Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams) and feminist (Zöe Kravitz, Grimes) collaborators.

It is perhaps her most accessible and pop-friendly album, but that seems intentional not only to widen her audience but in the creation of a more inclusive message. The second half does tail off a little, but the songs flow beautifully from one to the next together with quotes and speeches into a single textured argument.

In a year of openly queer popstars, powerful feminism and a hugely commercially successful Afro-futurist film in Black Panther, Monáe's 'Dirty Computer' is the perfect musical embodiment of these ideals. That's what makes it such an essential listen.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Crazy, Classic, Life
* Pynk
* Americans

Listen: 'Dirty Computer' is out now.