In “Pynk,” a single from Janelle Monae’s third full-length, “Dirty Computer,” she sings, “Pink beyond forest and thighs/ Pink like the secrets you hide, maybe.” Its video a bold celebration of lady parts, the spacious, percolating pop anthem is the closest Monae has come to decoding ciphers about her sexuality. (To that end, she recently came out as “a queer black woman in America…open to learning more about who I am.”)
Until now, the singer’s output has been more precise than provocative. Monae, chicly androgynous and charmingly outré, enveloped her albums (2010’s “The ArchAndroid” and 2013’s “Electric Lady”) in puzzling Afro-futuristic lore built around an alter-ego, the robot revolutionary Cindi Mayweather. The artist would have benefitted from creative edits, but the sheer glee of her genre-hopping tendencies (doo-wop, funk, soul, hip hop) proved fertile distractions from concept-fatigue. This has also made her an artist’s artist of sorts: Though not yet a bona-fide hitmaker, for “Dirty Computer” Monae enlisted such collaborator-fans as Prince (“Make Me Feel”), Brian Wilson (who sings breathtaking harmonies on the title track), Stevie Wonder (the spoken-word “Stevie’s Dream”), Grimes (“Pynk”), and Pharrell Williams (“I Got The Juice”).
“Dirty Computer” and its generously budgeted “emotion picture” — a 45-minute-long dystopian film that is visually dazzling but largely acts as a frame for the album’s four music videos (watch it here) — also sometimes buckles under the weight of its towering ambition. But this time Monae essentially has recast Mayweather as herself, which is what makes “Dirty Computer” satisfying.
The emphasis on self-expression alongside evocative visuals has invited comparisons to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” It’s a flattering, if reductive, analogy; the black female experience isn’t monolithic. Monae’s work may be about empowerment, but her verses aren’t about navigating the male gaze so much as shutting it down. The assertive rap “Django Jane,” for instance, delivers such delicious, in-your-face jabs as, “Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish? Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it/ Y’all can’t ban it, made out like a bandit.”
Monae may be defiant, but her brand of resistance manages to remain life-affirming. For instance, in her track notes, Monae designates “I Like That” as a retort to “wack ass f—boys everywhere (from the trop-house to the White House) who make the lives of little brown girls so damn hard.” In reality, “I Like That” is a feel-good R&B ballad that makes astute use of her crystalline vocals.
None of this would matter much if the songs didn’t deliver, and at its best, “Dirty Computer” entwines racial and gender politics into a double-helix of liberated lyrics and skillfully askew musicianship. “Should know by the way I use my compression,” she sings on the impishly funky “Make Me Feel” — its synths courtesy of her late mentor Prince, the song a nod to his pre-’90s creative peak. “That you’ve got the answers to my confessions.” In “I Got the Juice,” a call-and-response with Williams atop a “Milkshake”-lite bass groove (Williams co-produced both), she declares, “You tried to grab my pussycat/ This pussy grab you back.”
Even lesser offerings, such as “Crazy, Classic, Life” and “Screwed,” don’t disappoint in the one-liner department (“I just want to find a guy, and I hope she loves me too” and “You f—ed the world up now, we’ll f— it all back down,” respectively) — even if they pale in contrast to the sonic abandon of the album’s more ambitious tracks.
In “Django Jane” Monae threatens to “start a mother—in’ pussy riot.” She’s on her way. This is the new Monae — speaking her truth, subverting sounds, wearing vagina pants — and we’re right there with her.
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