“Even though you tell me you love me. I’m afraid you just love my disguise.” As Cyndi Mayweather, Janelle Monae hid behind a cyborg character on her last two albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady as part of an epic fictional Metropolis universe. It dealt with themes of oppression and totalitarianism (Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Equilibrium etc.) mixed with a narrative that involved the sci-fi technology of robots and time travel.
Although the name of Monae’s latest record Dirty Computer sounds like it exists within the same setting – and to an extent she does use robotic terminology in her lyrics and is subject to futuristic mind control on the album preview film Dirty Computer: Emotion Picture – her third album is far more outward looking, addressing issues in the real world (from her homeland under Donald Trump rule on I Got The Juice, to racist police brutality on ‘Americans’).
Furthermore, for the first time listeners get to know the real identity of Janelle Monae in an incredibly open manner including her thoughts about her own recently-announced sexuality and public image – a reaction to her boyish appearance at the beginning.
This result of her increasing fame and accolades in many fields has given her the confidence to feel comfortable in her own skin and also act as a spokesperson for oppressed minorities, specifically African-Americans and women, perhaps fuelled by her appearance in statement-making films Moonlight and Hidden Figures.
It features incredibly empowering lyrics that will mean more and be more practical for its listeners than her previous two records because they are less wrapped in fictional metaphors. While referencing ultra modern day slang such as “mansplaining” (to highlight common patronising) and “tinder” helps relate to her audience and get her messages across.
This is not to say that album lacks the imaginative juices of her earlier work, as a “dirty computer” itself is a clever phrase to describe the erroneous viruses within the human personality and spirit differentiating us from what is considered to be the standardized norm. Instead of taking ourselves to PC World for repair, she insists we should embrace those bugs. A further call for celebrating our differences is on the Stevie Wonder cameo ‘Stevie’s Dream’ in which he states that all religions have one common goal: to express love for one another.
Musically the album delves more into realms of accessible radio friendy pop and explicit language Hiphop with Monae rapping on a few tracks such as ‘Django Jane’. These zeitgeist styles mean it contains more predictable and unoriginal moments compared to her earlier work. While some of the best moments sound too much like Prince’s ‘Kiss’and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ – a result of Prince apparently having a hand in the production – this at least keeps his legacy alive. Some of her older idiosyncransies remain including hints of progressive rock and psychedelic soul, most notably on ‘Make Me Feel’, Take A Byte’ and ‘So Afraid’, whilst she continues to use motivational monologues on ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’ and ‘America’ to rally up listeners to fight and be counted for.
This time her lyrics take place in the real world rather than a fictional narrative and with it centralising on what it’s like to be a pansexual African American woman in modern day society, Dirty Computer feels like one of the most significant, insightful and important albums of the year.
Dirty Computer is out now on Wondaland.