In the emotion picture which accompanies Janelle Monáe’s new album Dirty Computer she is hunted by people who want to assimilate her, dress her in white and wipe her memory clean. Love, music, colour and self-expression are silenced in this eerily realistic dystopian future. This ambitious concept album and film proves that expressing your true self takes more than courage, sometimes you have to rebel against the very fabric of society itself.
Musically Monáe has always embraced science fiction with her blend of electro RnB but on his album she expands her horizons a little more by looking into the past and flirting with pop, while at the same time skilfully avoiding being caught by too many current chart trends. The album opens with the title track – an electro blast with Brian Wilson’s distinctive backing vocals, a mix that is both familiar and futuristic. In the corresponding opening scene of the movie two unknown white men begin cleansing her mind of happy memories.
The first memory is the hedonistic breeze of Crazy, Classic, Life. On this song she celebrates the being young, black, wild and free. Escapism is a beautiful and necessary thing, especially when your life is always under threat. The song is partly a fantasy of a more carefree existence where you can be whoever you want and be with whoever you want. In the film potential danger lurks everywhere, ready to raid the party and destroy the happiness she finds with both her male and female love interest. On Take a Byte she embraces her complex sexuality – this is an invitation, she’s ready to be eaten alive by anyone if it feels good. The lyrics also play on the ways that being online has made us more accessible and yet commodified at the same time, which a celebrity must understand all too well.
There’s a beautiful retro vibe to Screwed, with its almost outdated references to TV, magazines and rock and roll. In the film the song is performed in a wrecked warehouse that looks like the scene of an 80s pop video gone wrong. The complex nature of sex and power is explored with a knowing wry humour.
The album turns darker at this point with Django Jane, a straight rap, with no hooks, just bars filled with blistering anger and critical commentary on her life and the way women are treated in the world. With a rap as strong as this you know she could do a hip hop album if she wanted to but her ambitions can’t be confined to just one genre.
Pynk, featuring Grimes is such a cool song, about embracing your femininity and everything pink. The lyrics on this are gorgeous and it sounds equally parts weird and poppy. We can all be feminine – men too – and to deny the pink inside you is to deny your own power.
Make Me Feel sounds so much like Prince, it’s almost distracting but since he worked on this song you have to think he gave her his blessing to do whatever the fuck she wanted. It’s a great pop song and the video is a pansexual masterpiece.
On I Like That she embraces her identity, her differences and she owns every beat. Don’t Judge me is a slice of more laid back RnB, sounding sweet like something that could have been on the Solange album. This is her exposing her own vulnerability for the first time and it’s interesting that this song doesn’t appear in the film. Maybe that’s a signal – there are no disguises on this love letter to the truth.
Then Stevie Wonder makes a welcome appearance telling us to turn our anger into love and expression. It’s a moment of light before So Afraid explores her nagging doubts. What if I lose? She sings, her uncertainty and fear apparent only for a fleeting moment.
The final track Americans is a defiant rallying call : we can win this fight. We’ll find a way. It might be a direct song to the president himself. At the end of the film Janelle and her two lovers escape from their dystopian prison into the hopeful light of a brand new future.
Dirty Computer is a masterpiece in self-expression, an ambitious and yet always entertaining collection of songs. Janelle Monáe is a triple threat talent so jump on her bandwagon now before there’s no room left.