THE NEW POWER GEN­ER­A­TION

The spirit of inim­itable ge­nius Prince lives on in Janelle Monáe’s new al­bum. By

Sunday Times - - Artisan - Pearl Boshomane Tsotetsi

Janelle Monáe’s tal­ent has al­ways been un­de­ni­able, but she was also — to put it po­litely — bor­ing. Her mu­sic was ster­ile, even when it was meant to be funky and full of at­ti­tude. Her trade­mark mono­chrome out­fits, red lip­stick and “this is a man’s world” James Brown hair were cute, but their pre­dictabil­ity lost flavour pretty quickly. But some­thing hap­pened be­tween her last al­bum, 2013’s The Elec­tric Lady, and her new one, Dirty Com­puter. The world has changed dras­ti­cally since then, and it seems Monáe could no longer live in her an­droid-filled dream world and was in­stead pulled down to earth by its pol­i­tics and so­ciopol­i­tics.

And her men­tor, the mag­nif­i­cent and inim­itable ge­nius Prince, died in 2016.

But his spirit lives on in Dirty Com­puter, a su­perb record that feels like the first time Monáe is be­ing au­then­tic: she’s shed her mono­chrome uni­form and it feels like a metaphor for the place she’s in right now — pub­licly em­brac­ing and own­ing her queer­ness both in the mu­sic and in in­ter­views and be­ing more out­spo­ken about so­cial is­sues than in the past.

A lot of the songs are rem­i­nis­cent of 1980s Prince, peak Prince, 1999 Prince, Sign O’ the Times Prince.

Look, this isn’t to claim Monáe is in any way “the new Prince” (no such per­son will ever ex­ist). And it’s also not to claim Dirty Com­puter is re­duc­tive — it’s just in­spired. It’s hard to lis­ten to those el­e­gant yet dirty gui­tars and those synths with­out imag­in­ing The Pur­ple One’s ghost play­ing as part of Monáe’s band.

The ti­tle track (and al­bum opener) is a lazy psych-rock tune that fea­tures Beach Boys leg­end Brian Wil­son. It’s fol­lowed by Crazy, Clas­sic, Life, a song about liv­ing your own truth, per­sonal free­dom, break­ing the rules and be­ing young, black and free. “Just let me live my life,” she sings. This would sound cheesy and clichéd but here it feels earnest in­stead.

The ear­lier-men­tioned themes are present through­out the al­bum. Take the fun and catchy Screwed, for in­stance, which fea­tures Zoë Kravitz (ac­tor, coolest girl in Hol­ly­wood, daugh­ter of Lenny).

If you didn’t lis­ten to the song’s lyrics you would as­sume it’s a light-hearted tune about par­ty­ing but it’s re­ally about agency (“hun­dred men telling me cover up my are­o­las while they block­ing equal pay”), pol­i­tics (“the devil met with Rus­sia and they just made a deal”), about be­ing pow­er­less but also grab­bing power. It’s about screw­ing (as in sex, but also screw­ing so­ci­ety’s rules): “You f **** d the world up now, we’ll f**k it all back down,” Kravitz and Monáe sing.

Amer­i­cans, which has some yummy Ge­orge Michael vibes to it, is about pa­tri­archy, equal pay, guns, the Amer­i­can dream, big­otry and war: “A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes but she’ll never ever wear my pants.”

The al­bum is also sexy.

Take a Byte has such a de­li­cious, catchy, funky feel and lyrics like: “I’m not the kind of girl you take home to your mama … Play in my hair and nib­ble there all on my mocha skin … Just take a byte ... You look so good just help your­self.”

Make Me Feel, one of the al­bum’s first sin­gles, was ac­com­pa­nied by a video rem­i­nis­cent of an­thol­ogy show Black Mir­ror’s San Ju­nipero episode about a les­bian love af­fair. The video stars Monáe’s ru­moured girl­friend, ac­tor Tessa Thomp­son, and it’s about, in a nut­shell, be­ing bi­sex­ual (or pan­sex­ual, as Monáe iden­ti­fies).

(Thomp­son also stars in the film ac­com­pa­ny­ing the al­bum.)

Monáe con­tin­ues to em­brace her in­di­vid­u­al­ity on the smooth R&B of I Like That (“I’m the ran­dom mi­nor note you hear in ma­jor songs”). There’s sen­si­tiv­ity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity on the tracks Don’t Judge Me and So Afraid (which loosely has a sim­i­lar melody to the Fleet­wood Mac clas­sic I’m So Afraid).

But the most ex­plic­itly de­fi­ant track on the al­bum is Django Jane, where she raps about her jour­ney, her suc­cess, her achieve­ments, black girl magic and woman power (“And we gon start a moth­erf***n pussy riot,” she raps).

Speak­ing to web­site Ge­nius about what in­spired the track, she says: “As a young black woman, my very ex­is­tence felt less than the peo­ple in the po­si­tion of power right now, in that regime; feel­ing like my rights as a woman were be­ing tram­pled on. My agency was con­stantly try­ing to be taken away.”

The al­bum isn’t just about Monáe’s power as an in­di­vid­ual, but also the power of women (trans, cis, het­ero, queer, non-gen­der con­form­ing) as a col­lec­tive. Young women aren’t tak­ing any­one’s shit any­more.

Dirty Com­puter is very much a prod­uct of its time: it has at­ti­tude, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also de­fi­ant, an­gry, un­apolo­getic, fem­i­nist and po­lit­i­cal.

In the era of Trump, women re­volt­ing and abu­sive men be­ing held ac­count­able for their ac­tions, no one has time (or even cares) to pre­tend any­more. The good girls are ei­ther dead or dy­ing. Dirty Com­puter is the man­i­cured mid­dle finger many women are wav­ing in the air these days. Get used to it.

[It is] the man­i­cured mid­dle finger many women are wav­ing in the air these days

Pic­ture: Getty Im­ages

Janelle Monáe has shed her old im­age for some­thing more re­fresh­ing with her new al­bum, ’Dirty Com­puter’.

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