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Janelle MonŠe - Dirty Computer (Album Review)

Wednesday, 09 May 2018 Written by Jennifer Geddes

According to Janelle Monáe, dirty computers are those of us with bugs and viruses that society wants to clean away, but that we as individuals don’t see as flaws.

She sets up this idea on the title track of her new LP, which features Brian Wilson and sounds like the Beach Boys in space. With her previous two albums, Monáe used an alter ego, the android Cindi Mayweather, as a way to explore ideas from a distance. ‘Dirty Computer’, though, finds her taking a much more personal stance, discussing issues relating to being queer, black and female. Monáe happens to be all three.

In the past the singer has kept her sexuality private, but when the first single from the album, Make Me Feel, was released, many listeners commented on one specific line: “An emotional sexual bender.”

It’s a funky R&B track that has the sexuality, rhythm and a similar guitar sound to Prince’s Kiss. The late superstar was a mentor to Monáe, who consulted on early versions of the album’s tracks before his death.

The whole record is littered with dedications to him, from a sample of the intro to Kiss on Screwed, to the closing track, Americans, having a similar musiciality to Let’s Go Crazy. As it turns out, Make Me Feel was only the first rumbling of a glorious cascade of proud, creative queer statements. Monáe recently revealed in a Rolling Stone interview that she identified as pansexual, sending the term to the top of Google’s search list.

The visual element of ‘Dirty Computer’, meanwhile, is as important and expressive as the album itself. It has been accompanied by the release of a short film of the same name, which takes place in a futuristic dystopia that follows the idea of the cleansing of dirty computers and incorporates the previously released videos, such as PYNK and Make Me Feel, both of which star Tessa Thompson.

PYNK is a soft synth-pop song featuring Grimes, while its lyrics and video tackle female empowerment, sexual assault and transgender rights. In January, Monáe spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and the album makes several feminist statements. I Got The Juice, which somewhat ironically features Blurred Lines co-writer Pharrell Williams, is a dancehall-inspired track featuring the line: “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back (hey!).”

On Django Jane Monáe raps: “Move back, take a seat, you were not involved. And hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” The song also has powerful things to say about the concept of black girl magic. “I got away with murder, no scandal” is a reference to the black, female TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes. There are also broader statements on race, with nods to Moonlight, the Oscar-winning film in which Monáe acted, while Crazy, Classic, Life and Americans feature commentary on police brutality and institutionalised racism.

‘Dirty Computer’, both the album and the short film, are so expansive that you could spend an endless amount of time unpicking the range of references, and yet the songs are so immediate and undeniably catchy that it deserves to be the pop soundtrack of the summer. Whether it will be or not is hard to say. 

Last year Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran dominated with massive-selling and totally uninspired albums, but in the past few months we’ve had Black Panther become a box office phenomenon and Beyoncé rule Coachella. It feels like things are changing and that we are all the better for it. It’s so important for institutions to open up space to everyone for many reasons, including the fact that otherwise we might all expire through sheer boredom.

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