Atlantic Records
April 30, 2018 at 12:33 PM EDT
We gave it an A-

Janelle Monáe possesses a rarely seen kind of creativity, one that allows her to convincingly render herself into a character separate from reality. A former mentee of Prince, Monáe doesn’t merely perform a persona, she embodies it. 

On her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), she became her android alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, inviting listeners into an Afrofuturist version of the fantastical Fritz Lang-imagined city that inspired the project. Within this dreamworld, our cultural grievances and triumphs are projected back at us through the lens of magical realism. Monáe’s follow-up studio debut, The ArchAndroid, extended this narrative, showcasing her talent for combining unique visual and emotive elements to build expansive new worlds. Electric Lady performed a similar function, while posing Cindi as something a bit less android and a bit more human — perhaps even a bit more Janelle Monáe.

For her latest effort, the bombastic Dirty Computer (released 4/27), Monáe takes things a step further. This time the Kansas-born dynamo shifts completely out of character and into herself. Take the titular “Dirty Computer,” where Monáe riffs about her damaged internal hard drive over the smooth, pop-rock harmonies of Brian Wilson (Monáe has previously cited the Beach Boys as an enduring influence). What at first seems like an indictment of brokenness is in reality a fierce and joyful celebration of individualism. Monáe’s so-called “dirty computers” are the subsections of society who can identify with the pain of being othered, but also know the power and freedom of existing on the fringes.

In fact, soulful additions like “Crazy, Classic, Life” act as a love letter to the elusive idea of freedom itself. The dreamy, technicolor track opens with a segment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech before transitioning straight into Monáe’s joyful musings: “Young, black, wild and free / naked in a limousine,” she sings, embracing the lavishness of living remarkably. Here Monáe, who recently came out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone interview, is reclaiming her inherent right to be carefree. Paralleled against some of our current realities — increased racial tensions, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements,  etc. — her ownership of this (and awareness that she deserves this right), is a subtly radical statement.

But then so is the album as a whole. Take the Prince-influenced singles “Make Me Feel” and “Pynk.” Where “Make Me Feel” is a free-loving anthem of sexual and mental liberation, the latter is an undeniable celebration of womanhood. Awash with female anatomy references,“Pynk” reveals itself as a deceptively complex allegory for the beauty, power, and resiliency of existing as a woman. “Pynk” is also an announcement of Monáe’s uncompromising feminism. In the music video, co-starring Thor: Ragnarok’s Tessa Thompson,  she and a retinue of dancers perform choreography in individualized vagina-shaped pants (individual because every vagina is, after all, different).

Meanwhile, in “Screwed,” which features Big Little Lies star and Lolawolf frontwoman Zoë Kravitz, Monáe manages to create the kind of “purposeful pop” Katy Perry’s Witness album couldn’t quite figure out. Tongue-in-cheek and packed with razor-sharp commentary on the intersection of power, sex, race, and politics, Monáe offers a literal dance party in the face of dystopia. She ends the song with the clear-eyed observation, “Everything is sex / except sex, which is power / You know power is just sex / Now ask yourself who’s screwing you?”

As a whole, Dirty Computer strikes the perfect balance between joy and sadness, offering a deeply resonant account of Monáe’s personal experiences as a black woman. Some of these experiences are unquestionably difficult. Yet in relaying them to us, Monáe never deprives herself (or the listener) of pride, joy, or autonomy. Here we see that Janelle Monáe is human. Beyond human, she is black. Beyond black, she is a woman. Beyond a woman, she is queer, and beyond that she is a dirty computer, just like the rest of us.

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