THE NEW POWER GENERATION
The spirit of inimitable genius Prince lives on in Janelle Monáe’s new album. By
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
Janelle Monáe has shed her old image for something more refreshing with her new album, ’Dirty Computer’.