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It might be harder to assign a musical genre to Janelle Monáe’s latest album, “Dirty Computer,” than a literary one. As Monáe weaves together anthemic alt-R&B, acerbic hip hop, and dreamy pop-prog (she even starts the album with a Brian Wilson feature), the common thread is her visionary futurism.
The album centers on the relationship between mind and body, particularly in an unequal society that makes that relationship more strained for some than for others. The “dirty” in the title works on both of these levels: As Monáe told iHeartRadio, “We all come from the dirt, [but] we're downloading, uploading things in our brains, in our hearts. [...] I see all my bugs and viruses as features, as attributes. This album is about celebrating other ‘Dirty Computers’ who have been pushed to the margins of society.”
This physicalist conviction guides the album’s exploration of this marginalization. “Pynk like the folds of your brain,” she robotically intones, GLaDOS-style, on “Pynk,” later adding “Deep inside we’re all just Pynk.” The project of the album, then, is liberating our fundamentally equal selves from the “programming” that stratifies and divides us. “Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can’t pretend,” she sings on the homoerotic “Take a Byte.” Several rap and spoken-word verses recall moments from Monáe’s youth that symbolize disruptions to her own software that disrupted her relationship with her own black body and pansexuality. “All I wanted was to break the rules like you,” she raps on “Crazy, Classic, Life,” describing an episode in which she, tripping with her white friend at a party, was kicked out.
This hurt and frustration reappears throughout the album, and some of the cleverest lines are those that pin the blame. “Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas / While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca Colas,” goes one particularly inspired rhyme in the rapped coda of the mostly sung “Screwed” (an interesting structure Monáe repeats throughout the album). But she reveals the album’s underlying lyrical philosophy in a Stevie Wonder spoken-word feature. “Don’t let your expressions, even of anger, be confused or misconstrued. Turn them into words of expression that can be understood by using words of love,” says Wonder in his famously sweet and sunny voice. Indeed, throughout the album, Monáe turns biting social criticism into joy and empowerment. “We don’t need another ruler / All of my friends are kings,” a line on “Crazy, Classic, Life,” serves as both uplifting friend-boast and anarchist rallying cry. Elsewhere, Monáe seems to find hope in the idea that the personal is political. “Screwed,” featuring Zoë Kravitz, and “I Got the Juice,” featuring Pharrell, identify one-on-one interactions as an essential path to liberation.
But she saves her most remarkable statement for the closing track, “Americans.” Rather than suggesting that the country’s true face is its bloody history or oppressive present, Monáe separates the American reality from the American ideal: “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America; until same-gender-loving people can be who they are, this is not my America; until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head, this is not my America; until poor whites can get a shot at being successful, this is not my America.” By the end of the song, the chorus’s line, “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land” is transformed from a pastiche of right-wing patriotism to a full-hearted pledge to make her America a reality.
Monáe’s music maps perfectly onto this vision. Her melange of genres, voices, and features creates an artistic persona as multifaceted as the range of experiences she portrays. More importantly, the mix of the “computerized” elements with retro influences—from Wilson’s immediately identifiable vocals on the title track to the Prince-inspired delivery on “Make Me Feel,” which the late superstar helped create—complements the lyrics by locating the album in a historical legacy while laying out a bold vision for the future.
Monáe also paces “Dirty Computer” exquisitely, linking the many single-quality pop tracks with reflective interludes like “Jane’s Dream” or texture-creating raps like “Django Jane.” The true pop highlights, like “Screwed,” “Pynk,” and “Make Me Feel,” cluster in the middle, leaving space on either end to introduce and develop themes. The album slows down toward the end, with two memorably vulnerable tracks: “Don’t Judge Me,” the most musically complex song on the album, and the similarly beautiful “So Afraid” (whose chorus perhaps unintentionally references Fleetwood Mac), which gives the peppier “Americans” the feeling of an optimistic resolution. The team of producers, led by Nate “Rocket” Wonder, keeps the electronic production rich and varied throughout.
Like any in popular music, the pantheon of 2010s political pop and hip-hop is dominated by accessible (and brilliant) albums: “Lemonade,” “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” “DAMN.” If Monáe’s sci-fi conceits kept the shimmering futurism of her previous albums out of that lofty canon, “Dirty Computer” boasts the hooks, melodies, and pop sensibilities to elevate this dazzling and unique artist to that all-decade list—if this album gets the attention it deserves, adding a bold, fresh perspective and several excellent songs.
—Staff writer Trevor J. Levin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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