On her third album, singer Janelle Monáe delivers an innovatively inspired release that is honest and funky.
Album Grade: A
Released shortly after the second anniversary of Prince’s death, Janelle Monáe takes up the purple one’s mantle to deliver a daring, tuneful collection of songs that is both commercial and challenging. Lyrically direct, Monáe drops the Cindi Mayweather alter ego used on her two prior concept albums to move on to a new narrative that reveals the artist’s deeply personal side. Much of Dirty Computer’s concept, and accompanying mini-movie, centers on oppression of sexuality and race. While Monáe maintains her continued science fiction futurism, she is clearly rooted in the issues of today.
Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s harmonies accompany the opening title track that illustrates the record’s premise. People are viewed as computers and those outside the generally accepted straight, “mainstream” population are considered “dirty.” They are then cleared of bugs and “re-programmed” into a more acceptable version. Dirty Computer is an album about resistance to oppression and the acceptance of self, regardless of whether or not it makes others uncomfortable. Monáe’s vision and focus throughout make this a “concept album” that deserves to stand with Tommy, American Idiot, The Wall and other classics of the genre.
On leadoff single “Make Me Feel,” Monáe both starts from, and improves upon, Prince’s hit “Kiss” to assemble a spare, funky dance song. Prior to release, Monáe had indicated that the late musician was highly involved in the album and this tune in particular. Even a casual listener can spot his fingerprints all over it. An unusual descending vocal line is repeated prior to the chorus and gives the song an innovative quality that stands out.
The funny and frank “Screwed” features Zoë Kravitz and goes directly for the jugular lyrically. Her directness is dark, quick and to the point. While the sharp lyrics may shock, it is the muscular, funky bass line that drives the song musically. Pared with the catchy, bright melodies, this track is instantly memorable and will lodge into your head. “Screwed” segues into “Django Jane” making the latter feel like a coda to its catchy predecessor. The skill at which Monáe delivers her lyrical grenades on the first sunshine wrapped song is both impressive and engaging.
The variety of musical styles and references that shape Dirty Computer is what makes it such a special work. “Take A Byte” is slinky and danceable, while the “fifties-styled” vocal harmonies found on “I Like That” are sweet, unusual and reminiscent of New Jersey trio, The Roches. In this song, Monáe recounts childhood experiences that shaped and informed the person she would later become. She is unapologetic in owning who she is, and the self-confidence shown makes this a winner.
Monáe makes good use of guests like Pharrell Williams on “I Got The Juice,” and Grimes who appears on the delicately charming “Pynk,” but at no time do they overwhelm or distract from Monáe’s singular vision. The contributions simply add new shades of color to the sonic picture and enhance the already impressive work.
The uplifting, raving “Americans” give the album a fitting closure. While homophobia, racism, and sexism are the album’s dominant theme, Monáe uses this last song to further expand her scope to issues that eventually oppress nearly everyone. It is a quest for unity among all citizens. Calling out gender disparity in income (“Seventy-nine cent to your dollar”), as well as police brutality before intoning “Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful, this is not my America” to end the album. This is a mature, honest look at the negative aspects of American history, but by also declaring “I pledge allegiance to the flag” in her lyrics, Monáe also offers up the direct promise of “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” referenced earlier on the album in “Crazy, Classic Life.”
Ultimately, Dirty Computer succeeds due to the authenticity Monáe brings to it. Sexual identity and gender politics are all over the release, and Monáe’s recent announcement on her own sexual identity give the album nuance and credibility. Where Taylor Swift’s martyr preoccupation on Reputation failed due to lack of believability, here Monáe’s raw, intimate directness affirms that this is an artist who has experienced what she is talking about.
While commercially successful, the much larger attention garnered by artists like Bruno Mars and Beyoncé as an important major star has so far eluded her. Dirty Computer is the rare record that every one of the 14 tracks included is absolutely essential, both for the emotional story and the musical cohesiveness. This will be the album where Monáe makes the leap to the very front level of fame and respect.
Bottom Line: This is the best album of 2018 so far. An honest, insightful work of social critique from an artist who makes a leap from moderately popular to IMPORTANT with its release.
By Daniel G. Moir