Few albums come with as much weight as a cultural moment.
Few recent albums have come with as much weight as a cultural moment as Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. Monáe has spent a decade creating sci-fi concept albums, dancing like James Brown, and breaking through in Hollywood. On the release of her new album, she came out as pansexual, prompting a spike not only a spate of think-pieces but also in Google searches for the term. All of that was followed with a round of think-pieces about the think-pieces considering how to cover the news. Dirty Computer became entwined with Monáe’s biography, held up as a break from her previous android incarnations on disc, and as an element of the broader cultural conversation of intersectional topics. The album, on artistic merit, stands up to this weight, but it remains nearly impossible (and maybe undesirable) to separate it from the broader conversations.
Monáe has considered contamination at least as far back as 2013’s “Q.U.E.E.N.,” where she sang, “They call us dirty cause we break all your rules down.” The idea resurfaces from the beginning of Dirty Computer, where any sort of non-traditional personality or desire (or race or whatever – the album is open to multiple applications) can be perceived by the mainstream as a flaw, some sand in the machine. The album’s accompanying “emotion picture” clarifies it: the typical humans are trying to clean the atypical ones.
The album seeks to break free from those restraints, celebrating individuality and refusing to accept differences as defects. As expected from Monáe, that work makes for a broad, inclusive sound; she gets help across the disc from Brian Wilson, Prince, Grimes, Pharrell, and Stevie Wonder. She references Nina Simone and Malcolm X in a single track. She incorporates R&B, funk, pop, dance, and rap, an energetic explosion of sound proportionate to its thematic intensity.
For the most part, the songs succeed on their on, adding up to a remarkable vision. The great delight in the album so far has been Monáe dropping her Cindi Mayweather android persona in favor of simply being herself. There’s so immediate truth in that, even as this album continues her penchant for sci-fi trappings. The idea ignores the artifice of any art, as if this album is somehow less received or mediated; its explicitness doesn’t inherently make it more honest. There’s a certain joy in sorting through the structures of her previous work to sort out what’s happening. Dirty Computer might be more joyous and more personal, but not because adopting a robot disguise isn’t its own sort of personal move.
Monáe spends some time on race, immigration, and feminism, but the album largely focuses on a personal sexual liberation. At its best, that expression can be both joyful and complex. Single “Pynk” – with an effect exaggerated by the video – loads up on vaginal imagery. An initial listen suggests a simple sequence of Sapphic delight, but it turns out to be trickier than that. The erotic desire is coupled with female empowerment. The fearlessness present here anticipates the vulnerability of “So Afraid,” where Monáe sits “writing letters to my church” and considering the impulse to remain in her “shell.” The album circles through key issues, developing a full take on challenging experiences.
That sexual expression doesn’t always carry such weight, though, not that it needs to. “Screwed,” an anthem to overturning a screwed-up world by having sex and likely a takeaway hit from the record, sounds sillier as it goes on, especially the “Everything is sex” bridge, although the outro with its attack on our current political situation starts to add some gravity to what should be a countercultural sort of song, though by that point, it just feels heavy-handed. That sequence leads smoothly into “Django Jane,” one of the album’s hardest-hitting tracks. Monáe’s rap on black female empowerment with its wordplay and sharp delivery helps define both the content and the value of the album as a whole.
A decade ago, the Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP revealed a new talent with a strange and enormous vision, mixing transgressive relationships with retro-futurism. Dirty Computer may be the natural climax that started with cyborgs and wolfmasters and robot-human love, and it certainly makes for a stunning moment within the context of Monáe’s previous work. It also stands as an important political-cultural document. Fortunately, it’s also a very good record.