Dirty Computer is the third and the latest standard length studio album by the indie artist Janelle Monáe who is most known for her unique afro-futuristic style of R&B, which often showcases a delightful mix of electro-funk, and soul. Monáe is also known for her ability to weave a compelling theme throughout her albums where, individually, they can stand on their own, but together can create an intriguing and edifying sonic education or narrative, and Dirty Computer showcases such talent brilliantly.
Shedding the Android skin of her Cindi Mayweather persona that graced many of her earlier works, Janelle Monáe steps into her own body, trading the shell of one machine for another. The machine which powers the human self.
Consisting of fourteen tracks, altogether, the album begins with the one in which it is named after, “Dirty Computer” which features Beach Boys legend, Brian Wilson, and Janelle Monáe harmonizing over a short psychedelic track where they sing about the transmission of information, the machine like nature of humans and the corruption which affects them like viruses or computer bugs, further corrupting and eroding the information we’ve transmitted.
The next track “Crazy, Classic, Life” is a pop-synth anthem which starts with an interpolated speech in which Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is made to recite excerpts from the “Declaration of Independence” It states:
“You told us we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The speech sets up the theme for the rest of the song, and indeed the body of the album itself. Among its’ tracks you’ll find a purveying of inspirational activism for the freedoms to promiscuity, polyamory, as well as the rights of African-American women to freely express their sexuality, and sexual identity without being hampered down by the social stigmas and judgments that are often cast down upon them. This speech begins a mission statement for empowerment and the mechanisms which grant control of self individuality.
For example, on the track “Screwed” Janelle is joined by actress and singer Zoë Kravitz. The title here is used for both innuendo as well as an allegory for the state of society in which the protagonists of the song find themselves in, a society in which they’ve suffered constant injustice. The innuendo refers to finding pleasure and escape through sexual satisfaction. In the songs’ outro Janelle raps:
“Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas
While they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca Colas
Fake news, fake boobs, fake food—what’s real?
Still in The Matrix eatin’ on the blue pills
The devil met with Russia and they just made a deal
We was marching through the street, they were blocking every bill
I’m tired of hoteps tryna tell me how to feel”
These lyrics reference the aforementioned injustices bestowed upon women in America, more directly, black women, from the double standard and sexism applied towards a woman’s state of dress, to pay inequality, as well as providing commentary on the current state of U.S politics, alluding to mass protests of President Donald Trump, and of his alleged collusion with Russian Government during the 2016 U.S Presidential election. During the outro of this track the instrumental and vocals seamlessly bleed into the next, which is a feminist anthem entitled “Django Jane” Here Janelle raps about the power of liberation, and exercising that power to demonstrate agency, and control. The song also illustrates Janelle’s personal triumphs as a black woman growing up in a society which marginalizes and oppresses her people and gender.
During a February 2018 interview with the web newspaper The Guardian, Janelle had this to say about the track:
[Django Jane] is a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalized in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.”
Earlier this year I reviewed the single “Make Me Feel”, and wrote about the song “PYNK”, both tracks find themselves in in the midst of the albums tracks, and given the context of the album as a whole I feel that they both fit in perfectly. They further expand upon the essence of female anatomy and lesbian pride and lesbians’ grievances that permeates through layers of enchanting instrumentals and lyrics.
The album ends with the track “Americans”, a song that mirrors the sound of a gospel choir, and acts as a serenade that cuts its way through layers of a country with uncertain futures and a dark past, through violence and through racism and the traditions of bigotry in which the history of America is suffused with. In one verse, Monáe softly intones:
“War is old, so is sex, let’s play God, you go next
Hands go up, men go down, try my luck, stand my ground
Die in church, live in jail say her name, twice in hell
Uncle Sam kissed a man, Jim Crow Jesus rose again”
and in the chorus sings:
Love me baby, love me for who I am
Fallen angels singing, “Clap your hands”
Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land
I’m not crazy, baby, naw, I’m American
I’m American, I’m American, I’m American”
Which illustrates her feelings that despite the prejudices she and many other non-heterosexual women of color and suffer, she understands the potential for boundless pride in a country that offers freedom and acceptance.
It’s also important to note that the album is also accompanied by a futuristic short film starring Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson that Janelle describes as an “Emotion Picture: a narrative film and accompanying musical album.” It comes in with a runtime of about 47 minutes, and it provides some exclusive additions to lyrics and instrumental (PYNK finds a length new verse in its bridge) which aren’t found in the audio by itself. The film offers a visual treat, and leaves you captivated in all its’ abstractions and sci-fi motifs. The plot of the film features a woman named Jane living in an apocalyptic future where humanity is seen as abstraction and people are either dubbed “computers”, or “dirty computers”, where the later have to go through a reforming process of proselytization and brainwashing by the removal of their memories.
As far as criticisms go, there are some tracks where lyrics and vocals could stand to be a bit more elegant but as a whole, it does not distract from the works narrative or enjoyment it brings. They’re like a lowly piece of copper on a mountain of gold, largely irrelevant to the richness in view. In fact, this album (and film) is like a dizzying spin of lights, the color of stained glass dancing across the floor of a church, that Janelle has transported you to, she preaches from the pulpit as the lights move in tandem with the bodies above it. They’re all hip to hip, and limb to limb, and are at times chaotic and at others deliberate. It is a mosaic of movements, creating their own canvas, paintings that express pleasure, skin to skin, but also anger, flashes of protests, scenes of oppression, all contained there in the effervescence of Dirty Computer. And it is oh so good.
1. Make Me Feel
2. Don’t Judge Me
6. I Like That