Throughout her discography Monáe looked to the future to understand the present, carving smart high-concept albums by balancing themes of identity and alienation with science-fiction narratives. She metaphorically explored being a woman, black, and queer in an oppressive society by taking on an android alter-ego.
In ‘Dirty Computer’, this aspect falls to the background as a thematic overtone, as she steps beyond the alter-ego, and draws more from the lyrical frankness heard in some of the rap sections on previous tracks. The music is vastly more personal, and the narrative instead takes audio-visual shape in her accompanying ‘Emotion Picture’ film of the same name.
Monáe’s music has always been innovative, her previous records blending R&B, neo-soul and disco with funk and psychedelic rock, with an eccentric, and vivid result. ‘Dirty Computer’ is not a departure from this era, but certainly maturation, unique as ever but moving into pop territory. Monáe takes to singing in a lower register throughout, tries on a soul ballad in ‘Don’t Judge Me’, embraces bold synths in ‘Take a Byte’. Over 14 songs, and with collaborators ranging from Brian Wilson to Grimes to Pharrell, she jumps between genres whilst remaining sonically cohesive.
‘Screwed’ mixes colourful pop ornamentations and funk rhythm guitars from the outset, which evolves into a sensual trap beats section with a powerful rap epilogue. Thematically, Monáe balances expressions of sexuality with social commentary on political corruption. This seamlessly transitions into Monáe’s fierce rap song ‘Django Jane’. In this lead single, showcasing her lyrical prowess, each verse is wittily put together, simultaneously personal, and broadly political. Not to mention the sumptuous musical arrangement, that weaves around and works with the vocals to bring weight to the right moments.
Some of the best tracks are different from anything she’s produced before. ‘Pynk’ which features Grimes, takes form as a bubble-gum pop song but celebrates the female body. In ‘Make Me Feel’ Monáe playfully tiptoes around articulating feelings for someone, until the pre-chorus storms in with powerhouse guitars, and a rhythmic chorus. The instrumental texture is dynamic, used sparingly but cleverly, and like many others on the album, bears the presence and theatricality of Prince.
With her vision more refined and her songs more outspoken, ‘Dirty Computer’ clearly taps into the anxiety of the times. The album ends with ‘Americans’, a sardonic, upbeat take on Trump’s gun-toting conservative America, satirising racists, sexists and homophobes alike. Ushered in with an electric gospel intro, the final note of the album is a jubilant reassurance to all outsiders that they aren’t alone.
More self-assured than ever, in ‘Dirty Computer’ Janelle Monáe embraces her identity with an honesty and freedom not previously touched on, and it’s a joy to listen to. She pitches her content between the personal and the political, entwining both in the cleverness of her lyrics, and preaching self-love, empowerment and change against odds.