It’s always an experience when you can pinpoint the exact moment a musician you admire transforms into a full-on cultural icon.
It doesn’t happen often, and it rarely happens to musicians I love. But we’re right now living through Janelle Monae’s cultural icon moment, and it’s a joy to watch. Monae has been astonishingly good for a long time, and if you’d told me in 2010 that this jaw-droppingly talented mix of Prince and Erykah Badu with a penchant for science fiction narratives would, before the decade was out, get her name on everyone’s lips, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But I would have been excited for the future.
Even among my more adventurous friends, Monae has been a hard sell. Her first two albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, were chapters in an ongoing narrative about android Cyndi Mayweather and her misadventures in a future where love is outlawed. They’re lengthy, dense things, broken up into suites and beholden to no one style or genre. I knew within the first minutes of The ArchAndroid that I was in for a ride, and by the time I got to “Cold War,” I knew Monae was something special.
But iconic? I daresay no one could have predicted that. Monae leapt into the public consciousness with starring roles in two acclaimed motion pictures: Moonlight, which won Best Picture last year, and Hidden Figures, a film close to my heart for its depictions of women of color in science. She was riveting in both, revealing talents I didn’t know she had. And now she’s cemented her metamorphosis by releasing her finest, most accessible and most important album, Dirty Computer.
And I can’t stop listening to it. Not only is she the center of a cultural conversation, she’s made far and away the best record of 2018 so far. In possibly the most beautiful twist of this story, she did it by being herself. Dirty Computer leaves the story of Cyndi Mayweather behind, and focuses on the story of Janelle Monae. While I’ve never felt that her sci-fi leanings held her back – on the contrary, they set her apart – she sounds more liberated here than I’ve ever heard her. She’s owning her story and speaking it with staggering confidence, and it’s a joy to behold.
That’s not to say Dirty Computer ditches sci-fi entirely. As detailed in the accompanying “emotion picture,” the record takes place in another dystopian future, in which people are treated as computers, and thoughts and actions not sanctioned by the state are treated as computer viruses. People who dare to be themselves are termed “dirty,” and are forcibly “cleaned”: their memories are erased, experience by experience. The film casts each of the album’s songs of freedom and identity as recurring character Jane 57821’s “dirty” memories, which are erased by her captors. It’s a potent metaphor for the moralistic totalitarian state that decides whether LGBTQ people can be married, or use the bathroom, or even exist.
One of the best things about Dirty Computer, the album, is that you don’t need to know any of that. The movie adds context (and is beautiful), but the songs on this record don’t depend on it. In fact, I was surprised to find out that there was a sci-fi element to this thing at all, since the music is so personal. There’s no hiding here – Monae has literally come out and written about the freedom to be who she is and love who she chooses. It’s breathtaking to realize she’s been holding back before, and she lets it all out here.
She also trims back her genre-hopping, sticking to a cohesive sound throughout. It’s no secret that Monae worked with Prince on this album, but I was surprised at how much she evokes the late, lamented genius here. His spirit can be heard in every groove, but the influence isn’t just musical. This is an album that discusses sex in a frank and open (and supremely sexy) way – sex as a political statement and a political force – and who better to turn to when you’re making an album about that? Prince is the patron saint of the fearlessly liberated, and that’s the best way I’ve found to describe this record: fearlessly liberated.
You can hear it in the opening song (save for the introductory title track, which features Brian Freaking Wilson), “Crazy Classic Life.” It starts with Pastor Sean McMillan quoting Martin Luther King on the “we hold these truths to be self-evident” portion of the Declaration of Independence, and then launches into a thick synth groove, Monae singing, “Young, black, wild and free, naked on a limousine…” It’s a song about seizing the life in front of you, and after a first verse that would make Mike Huckabee run away screaming, she pointedly sings this: “I am not America’s nightmare, I’m the American dream.”
Throughout the record, Monae paints sex as a political act, as a protest. “Screwed” may be the most transgressive thing I have ever loved, an absolute powerhouse of a song that plays with its title – it alternately means sex and the end of civilization. (“We’re all screwed!”) “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down,” she sings, and I’ve caught myself from singing that line out loud in public more than once over the past few days. It’s an end-of-the-world hedonism anthem with a bitter truth at its core: sex appears to be one thing that the people who ruined the world are afraid of, since they try so hard to control it. As she says in the bridge, “If everything is sex except sex, which is power, you know power is just sex, so ask yourself who’s screwing you…”
“Pynk” might be even more subversive, even if it sounds more innocent, with its whispered vocals and synth burbles. It’s a celebration of sexuality, but black queer feminine sexuality, a point of view I can’t remember hearing (or at least hearing in a song this good) on a mainstream pop single before. It’s a song that somehow manages to touch on love, sex and gender identity within an intensely hummable three-minute ditty, and if you’re not listening closely you may not even realize what you’re singing along with. (You will if you’ve seen the stunning video, though.) That’s followed up by “Make Me Feel,” the one co-write with Prince, and you can tell. It’s a wickedly raunchy blues, the kind the Purple One used to give us all the time, and it’s so good to hear someone as devilishly talented as Monae carrying on that tradition.
Somewhere in the middle of all that is “Django Jane,” Monae’s triumphant return to rapping, and there are so many great lines in this rapid-fire ode to black womanhood that it would be futile to try to excerpt it. (OK, just one, because I’m particularly fond of this kiss-off to the patriarchy: “Move back, take a seat, you were not involved, hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue…”) “Django Jane” serves as connective tissue for an opening two-thirds that seamlessly barrels along, taking one sure-footed step after another, never faltering.
That’s not to say the closing third falters, because it doesn’t. But it does slow down the momentum and give way to some more reflective pieces. “I Like That” is gorgeous, a classic ballad about defiant individuality – not only does she like it, but she doesn’t “give a fuck” if she’s the only one who likes it. She describes herself here as “the random minor note you hear in major songs,” and I adore that. I also adore the mini-story she tells partway through, about being judged for her looks in grade school, crying it out, and deciding to never again care what people think.
In that vein, the lush, six-minute “Don’t Judge Me” takes solace in one person who won’t tear apart her flaws. It’s a nakedly vulnerable, almost unbearably intimate song. “I know I got issues but they drown when I kiss you,” she sings, and even with all of the clamor and force of the preceding tracks, this is the album’s most powerful moment to me. People are going to paint this as an album about sex – and it is – but it’s really about love. It’s about loving yourself enough to love others, which makes the retreat of “So Afraid,” this song’s companion piece, even sadder: “I’m fine in my shell, afraid of it all, afraid of loving you…”
And I kind of like that the album leaves it there, in the tension of love and fear, choosing to end with a political whirlwind called “Americans.” Monae takes on the guise of ignorance in the first verses: “I like my woman in the kitchen, teach my children superstitions…” She spins a chorus, though, that could come from anyone, herself included: “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land, I’m not crazy, baby, I’m American.” The spoken bridge, taken from McMillan again, leaves no doubt where her heart lies – it’s a series of conditions that, until they’re met, mean America is out of reach for many. It’s really worth quoting in full:
“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. Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls, this is not my America. But I tell you today that the devil is a liar, because it’s gonna be my America before it’s all over.”
God, I hope so. Dirty Computer is a protest album, a bold statement of Monae’s identity wrapped in a strong case that she represents America just as much as anyone else here does. It’s an album that dares to dream that people of different races, different genders and different orientations can be as free as this album’s music sounds. It’s a stunning drawing back of the curtain, a highly personal plea for inclusion and equality, a record that understands and depicts sex as a political act and as a beautiful connection between people. All that, and it’s a glorious set of pop songs, as clever as they are indelible, as hummable as they are potent.
In short, it’s a powerful thing, this album, and we’ll look back on it as the moment Janelle Monae broke out of her cocoon and took flight. She belongs to the world now, and I hope we all deserve her. Dirty Computer is amazing, and I can’t even begin to imagine what she’s going to do next.
Speaking of next, we’ll have new things from Frank Turner, Gaz Coombes and Leon Bridges next week. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.