You could definitely say that Janelle Monae is having a moment. Starring in critically acclaimed and commercially successful films with a charismatic ease that suggests that there is much more to come, Monae is now focusing on what many originally know her for, and that is music.
Dirty Computer is her third album and comes five years after 2013’s occasionally patchy but often brilliant The Electric Lady. Her albums have introduced stylised and intricate concepts about androids and alternate personas which are accompanied by cerebral and highbrow arrangements performed by Monae usually dressed in black and white outfits only.
The astounding publicity surrounding this release is unprecedented for Monae. Kicking off several months ago with eye-popping visuals for four perfect singles where colour was in, concepts appeared to be out and bold pop writing of the highest calibre was pressed up hard against music’s zeitgeist. People began to tune in who had never paid that much attention before.
‘Make Me Feel’ preceded the album and introduced this new incarnation of Janelle Monae by way of Prince. The pair have collaborated before and there are elements of Dirty Computer which involve his direct input – the synth line on ‘Make Me Feel’ being one – and others where his influence and guidance is palpable.
On this record Monae has taken major musical and stylist cues from the big three pop names of the last thirty five years or so (Prince, Michael and Madonna), much like Gaga did on Born This Way. The difference between the shapeshifting Gaga and Monae though is that Monae is queer and black as well as being a woman, and that is the lens through which Dirty Computer is to be viewed and how, one presumes, it was born.
Pronouns are the opposite of what we expect from a mainstream female artist and on the pinched and airy ‘Pynk’, a cheeky but sensual ode to female same-sex intimacy is offered which is neither gratuitous nor voyeuristic.
Other tracks are less obviously concerned with race and gender politics, and songs like ‘Crazy Sex Life’, one of the record’s few underwhelming misfires, revisit pop’s constant craving for the glamorous life. ‘Crazy Sexy Life’ is at the beginning of the record and it isn’t until the fourth song that Monae really hits a compellingly solid groove that lives up to the album’s promise and which is maintained for almost the remainder of the album’s playing time.
‘Screwed’ surprises because of how low-slung and laid back it is, not the manic explosion you may expected given its title. A sensual and effortless bass line complete with Chic-like chiming guitar make for the perfect backdrop to Monae’s pontification of how gender, sex and power are interlinked. A close examination of the song’s spoken mantra doesn’t really stand up but her freshly sharpened pop-star credentials are on full blast here and never has she sounded so connected to something so potentially big.
‘Screwed’ runs into ‘Django Jane’ which in turn leads to ‘Make Me Feel’ and by the time ‘Pynk’ has finished you can be assured that you will have experienced the most immaculate, exciting 20 minutes of perfect, creative pop released in the last decade or so.
Aside from a weirdly out of place collaboration about bodily fluids with Pharrell, which will make you want to listen to Kelis”Milkshake’ instead, the last part of Dirty Computer is slower and more introspective than the fluorescent and thrill-seeking central part.
‘Don’t Judge Me’ is a neo-soul ballad with a lovely string part and is the closest this record comes to the vintage Monae sound.
‘So Afraid’ has a dark and menacing mood which reflects its subject matter.
Album closer ‘Americans’, which is the one time that the Prince influence edges too close to parody, is a summing up of the album’s dominant warning – being ‘different’ is still a threat and people will want to change you, but together ‘we’ can challenge that.
This has always been one of the essential and most enduring tropes of pop music throughout the decades and is what still continues to fuel a lot of pop culture.
Janelle Monae has taken many risks with this album, some of which are still depressingly considered brave, and whilst the pop marketplace may be jam-packed there is currently no one like her.
Whether she has the ability to become a culturally omnipresent star comparable to a Beyonce, Kendrick or Adele is still very much open for debate. Dirty Computer may still have a few bugs but it is an important and exhilarating record.