Janelle Monáe wants you to be happy. And then she wants you to fight.
Her new album, ‘Dirty Computer,’ is for women angry that ‘our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power’
Janelle Monáe wants you to fight oppression. And she wants you to do it as part of a gleeful, unapologetic army of self-loving black women.
Hence the synth-heavy, dance-pop vibe of her third studio album, Dirty Computer, which drops today. A 44-minute narrative film that accompanies the album aired Thursday night on BET and MTV. It’s set during a totalitarian regime far enough into the future that everyone drives hover cars and people are simply known as “computers.” When people are deemed “dirty,” when they don’t fit society’s vision for what they should be, their minds are reprogrammed and erased of all the memories that have made them aberrant. The videos Monáe published in the run-up to the film release (Dirty Computer, Pynk, Make Me Feel, Django Jane and I Like That) are all memories this clean regime seeks to delete.
Dirty Computer, and especially “Pynk,” will be remembered as a stunning coming-out for Monáe, who identifies as pansexual. So much popular art that touches on the lives of queer black women is filled with hardship, even when the endings are happy. The words, imagery and circumstances of works like The Color Purple, The Women of Brewster Place, Rent and even Pariah feature women whose lives are demonstrably more difficult because of their queerness.
There’s anxiety in Dirty Computer — after all, their supposed unfitness for society is why the computers are being summoned for memory deletion — but misery doesn’t dominate the narrative. The dirty computers of the world are going to take it over. And when they do, everyone’s gonna be happy about it.
“It was inspired by black girl magic and wanting us to have a piece of work we can look to when we are frustrated, when we are angry, when we are feeling our existence doesn’t mean much to those in the position of power and to the abusers of power,” Monáe said during an interview this week at the New York office of Atlantic Records, where she was curled up on a sofa in a floor-length fuchsia skirt and fitted black sequin jacket. “It was just important for us to come together, as unique beings, and for the world to see us celebrating ourselves individually and collectively.”
Dirty Computer is an unambiguous response to the election of Donald Trump, powered by fury, to be sure. (You try to grab my p—y, this p—y grab you back, she warns on “I Got The Juice.”) But mostly, the album is joyful, reveling in the pleasures of erotic and romantic vulnerability. And it is loudly, happily, delightfully queer.
Monáe has said repeatedly that her choice to wear a “uniform” of black-and-white clothing, usually tuxedos, for her public appearances was a way to honor her working-class parents, who both wore uniforms in their jobs. But Monáe’s restricted wardrobe was also a shield for her life. She had a tendency to, as she says, “self-edit.”
Well, that Janelle Monáe is gone. Dirty Computer is awash in color, and the most important one in her new palette is pink, as evidenced in the video for “Pynk.” That would be the video featuring Monáe dancing in what can only be described as labia pants, a celebration of all things black and sapphic, starring Monáe’s repeat leading lady, actress Tessa Thompson.
“I love that you called them labia pants,” Monáe said. “Some people just say vagina pants, which is fine. Some people call it the flower, which is all cool. I just thought it would be an interesting way to celebrate women. Not all women have labias or vaginas, so you have some women who don’t have them on. I tried to represent as many as I possibly could, but it is so impossible to represent all of us.”
Monáe grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, but is now based in Atlanta. That’s where she was discovered by Big Boi and where she’s set up her Wondaland record label. She’s part of a soul sisterhood of strange Southern women that includes Solange, who is from Houston, and Erykah Badu, who is, at least by the limits of our earthly understanding, from Dallas. Their hobohemia is the place to be these days. Both Solange and Badu collaborated with Monáe on her last album, The Electric Lady. The director Alan Ferguson, who is married to Solange, directed several videos for Dirty Computer, including “Make Me Feel,” with its Prince-composed synth riff and clear allusions to “Kiss.” And the more laid-back tracks on Monáe’s foray into the ’80s share a vibe with Solange’s 2012 EP True.
But Monáe’s work also calls to mind another daughter of Houston: Beyoncé. Both women boast exacting tastes when it comes to aesthetics and a dedication to labor that’s evident in their work. But Monáe also had to find a way to let her true self shine through the alter ego and alternate, futuristic universe she’d created. Her perfectionist tendencies were a creative obstruction.
“It’s something that is really getting in the way of me finishing not this project, but all my projects,” she said. “It isn’t a good way of living and being a perfectionist. It’s not fun. It’s not cool to me, actually. I still pay very close attention to detail, but when I stop enjoying the experience and when it starts getting in the way of me being in the present moment and it starts to mentally wear me down, I have got to stop.”
She sounded remarkably similar to Beyoncé speaking about her own perfectionist tendencies in Life Is But a Dream, the singer’s 2013 HBO documentary. The similarities don’t stop there. Both women have dedicated their art to speaking explicitly about racial injustice and celebrating people who find themselves othered in some way.
“When you look on TV, you see the leader of the free world and that whole regime not giving a f— about your family and those who look like you,” Monáe said after a Dirty Computer screening this week. “The color of your skin can just get you escorted out of a Starbucks for having a business meeting. You can be in your own backyard and a police officer mistakes your phone for a gun, and you’re murdered.”
Some may find an obvious point of comparison between Lemonade and Dirty Computer, but a more apt one would be to Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album. It was her first visual narrative project and, like Dirty Computer, Beyoncé’s self-titled album was an announcement of a sexual awakening. It was a celebration that comes with being a woman who’s realized that the rules governing women’s bodies and behavior are a load of hogwash. Dirty Computer, with its visions of dancing labias and celebration of bisexual, polyamorous relationships, does the same.
Beyoncé has created a path for modern black women to be their full public selves without apology, something Monáe acknowledged in an Instagram post about Beychella. “My QUEEN for life,” she wrote in a caption accompanying a photo of Beyoncé in her Nefertiti cape. “Always. And forever. You continuously make me feel so proud to be a Black woman & artist. Last night was EXCEPTIONAL. We must protect you at all costs!”
The two albums also mark both women’s embrace of uttering the F-word aloud. They say it with a naughty deliberateness, delighting in the shock that comes from hearing such a dirty word uttered by women eager to slough off projections of pretty, proper respectability.
“I say ‘f—’ in the album a lot,” Monáe acknowledged. “I know. It’s because I give a f—. I give several f—s about our future.”
With her 2007 EP Metropolis: Suite I (the Chase), Monáe created an alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android who was part of a futuristic society, and through three albums led listeners through the world she’d created. Monáe knows how to craft an upbeat hit that makes you want to get off your feet, like “Tightrope” and “Dance Apocalyptic.” But the personal nature of Dirty Computer is more evident than in her previous three albums. It begins with an acknowledgment that the country is not living up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, something that really came into focus for Monáe after the 2016 presidential election.
But the silver lining is that Monáe decided to stop being polite and start getting real. On “Crazy, Classic, Life” she sings:
I am not America’s nightmare.
I am the American dream.
Just let me live my life.
We don’t need another ruler.
We don’t need another fool.
Monáe debuted Dirty Computer at a screening at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater this week, which was followed by a Q&A with internet celebrity Franchesca Ramsey, and she addressed the difference.
“I feel like for a while I was just writing songs so that they can be helpful to other people, and now I feel like I need them more than ever myself,” she said. “I’m learning to really walk in it and really embrace taking my beauty, even if it makes others uncomfortable — not just going slowly but being like, you gotta do that. You have to walk it. Walk it like I talk it.”
On “Django Jane,” Monáe revels, suited up as Jane Bond, in the sort of egocentric posturing we commonly associate with male rappers. She delivers a flow that suggests time spent with her Wondaland label artist Jidenna while giving listeners a moment that recalls the grimy boastfulness of “Bow Down/I Been On.”
Dirty Computer is packed with visual, sonic and thematic influences — including Prince, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Grace Jones, Blondie, Black Mirror, Thelma and Louise, Oscar Wilde, even the video for Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible” — woven within its joyful call to arms. She’s still Janelle Monáe, just more than she’s ever been before. And her insistence on her American-ness, her continued homages to her working-class roots, her undeniable attraction to killer guitar riffs, make her a Bruce Springsteen for the majority-minority America of the future.