With Dirty Computer, the latest release from R&B superstar Janelle Monáe, listeners are, for the first time in Monáe’s work, fully brought into her world.
Since her emergence in 2010 with her debut The ArchAndroid, Monáe has carefully crafted a persona of robotic design that’s kept listeners at arm’s length. Sure, there were glimmers of her true self in songs like “Q.U.E.E.N” and “Mushrooms & Roses” but those moments were buried in albums that favoured the manufactured over the real.
But now with Dirty Computer, the act has fully been dropped. Gone is the Android aesthetic and in its place is a collection of flesh and blood pop songs; complex and beautiful in a way Monáe has only teased at before.
Opening with the title track, “Dirty Computer” Monáe lays out the core concept of the album, that beneath all the robotic imagery she was always just another broken person yearning to be whole. With a simple drum and bass line, great synth work, and harmonies courtesy of Brain Wilson; it’s a quiet start to the record, but one that services as a much-needed breaking down moment for the rest of the album to build from.
And Monáe takes full advantage of this with the next track, “Crazy, Classic, Life” which is a joyous ode to sex, partying and being free. It’s the type of song that fans might not expect from Monáe but after multiple listens the fun she’s clearly having envelops you and from there you’re hooked.
Early singles “Make Me Feel” and “Pynk” go a little more in-depth exploring Monáe’s open pansexuality with lovely results. “Make Me Feel” especially so with its Prince-inspired guitar riff and lyrics so sexy that they will leave anyone a little heated.
Monáe understands the political and social need to be open with herself and doesn’t shy away from taking a stand on many of Dirty Computer tracks. “Screwed” is a hilarious duet with Zoë Kravitz that details the fucked up state of the world and how women have to fix the mistakes of men.
And closer, “Americans” is a bruising take on the current political culture in America detailing the struggle of every non-white citizen living in this Trump era. All across Dirty Computer, there is a huge growth in Monáe’s writing and with this more human approach to her songs leads to more impactful results.
Musically, Dirty Computer is more a mixed bag. Only a few songs retain the R&B style that Monáe has built her sound on, with most of the other tracks taking on new areas for her. In some cases, this works, like with the hard-hitting “Django Jane” or the Grimes featuring “Pynk”. But on other songs like the forgettable “Take a Byte” or “I Like That” a more generic pop sound numbs the senses.
With Monáe being so open with herself though it makes sense that she would like to dip her toes into new sound territories, one wishes she were to lean a little harder into her R&B background that set her apart in the first place.
Dirty Computer might not have a lot of similarities to Monáe’s past work, but it’s not too much a downfall. With a new focus on personality and openness, Monáe only has a future of possibility in front of her.
Dirty Computer is out now via Bad Boy Records.