Janelle Monáe, “Dirty Computer” (Atlantic)
Monáe rarely goes more than a few minutes on her new album without evoking the hardship and injustice that color the American experience for so many. Police violence, pay disparity, legislative malfeasance — they’re all part of a project whose sci-fi-inspired title summons an imagined near-future state in which nonconforming androids are “cleaned” of their “bugs.”
Yet the spirit that animates “Dirty Computer” isn’t one of fear or even outrage. Instead, the third studio album by this adventurous R&B singer plays like an outright celebration — a warm and vibrant tribute to the marginalized people, especially women and those with fluid ideas about gender and sexuality, whom Monáe sees as the true embodiment of America’s promise.
“Young, black, wild and free,” the narrator describes herself in “Crazy, Classic, Life,” while “I Like That” deploys a vivid metaphor for a proud misfit’s position: “I’m always left of center, and that’s right where I belong / I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs.”
Even “Screwed,” about all the trouble politicians and businessmen have put us in, finds reason to be hopeful in a clever (and unprintable) double-entendre that hints at the liberating potential of love.
Much has been made of Monáe’s mentorship by Prince, and indeed, his influence crops up here, as in “Make Me Feel,” with its trebly guitar à la “Kiss,” and “Americans,” which opens with stately church organ — very “Let’s Go Crazy” — before jumping to a peppy new wave groove.
But in its deep sensuality and its disregard for old binaries, “Dirty Computer” also recalls Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope,” from 1997, on which she offered a radically complex vision of black womanhood.
Monáe’s album shares the stylistic breadth of Jackson’s as well. “Dirty Computer” moves from crisp, up-tempo pop-funk numbers like “Screwed,” which features Zoë Kravitz, to trippier psychedelic-soul jams like “So Afraid” and the title track, which sports layered vocal harmonies from Brian Wilson. “Pynk” is a collaboration with electronic pop artist Grimes; “I Got the Juice” has Pharrell Williams rhyming “freak scene” and “wet dream.”
And then there’s “Django Jane,” a throbbing hip-hop cut in which Monáe raps ferociously about the need for women to be heard in a patriarchal culture. Though it follows the form of a classic dis track, “Django Jane” feels in some ways like the most personal song on “Dirty Computer”; it’s full of little flashes of detail from Monáe’s life, including her upbringing in Kansas City, Kan., and her recent turn to acclaimed acting in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures.”
That’s not something we’ve always gotten from Monáe, who on previous records took on the guise of a robotic alter ego.
On this impressive and heartfelt album, she’s not just singing in honor of individuals who’ve been othered. She’s singing as one — and with a determination to open small minds.
MIKAEL WOOD, Los Angeles Times
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