Janelle Monae’s masterpiece album, Dirty Computer, with its socially-conscious future funk and infectious grooves, is as good as it gets. Without question, it’s best-album-of-2018-good. I’m blown away by how inventive and theatrical the album is while also blending multiple genres. And did you check the liner notes? Read them as you listen to the album to up the ante on your listening experience. Like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., with many layers of complexity, Dirty Computer gets better with every listen.
Dirty Computer is a painstakingly conceived and executed work of art drawing on inspiration from the late, great Prince whose presence is ubiquitously felt throughout. Other sources of inspiration are Gloria Steinem, Barack O’bama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, and myriad literary works including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, and recently release film, Black Panther, among others. One article offers a recommended reading list “based on Monáe’s dystopian inspirations and Afrofuturist influences, based on a future that is diverse and representative of what some might consider subversion—from being pansexual to polyromantic to black.”
If Monae’s music signifies disruption, than by all means: crank the volume, and signify, people, because Monae’s America is the future. Dirty Computer’s America is not homogeneous, fixed, static, and beige, but instead decidedly diverse, eclectic, colorful, fluid, shapeshifting, and prismatic. The May 1st 2018 issue of The Economist called the album “protest music done right” and gave it praise for delivering a societal critique without being “self-congratulatory”. This great piece from Philadelphia-based publication-The Inquirer— analyzes Dirty Computer in the context of American Protest Music and compares the the album’s final track, “Americans”, to Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is You Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”. Author Dan DeLuca sums up the album simply as “party-starting protest music, ” and that’s exactly what it is.
But it’s a new kind of protest music. “Americans”, fused with O’bama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, is an electrifying anthem that conveys a powerful sense of change for the better, of a new day on the horizon. Monae states that her intent is to inspire and uplift, and those intentions are apparent from start to finish in this album. I love rolling my window down on a sunny day, cranking the volume, and singing along with Monae: “Just love me baby / love me for who I am / fallen angels / singing clap your hands / don’t try to take my country / I will defend my land / I’m not crazy, baby / naw / I’m American / I’m American/ I’m American/ I’m American. And check these verse lyrics:
I like my woman in the kitchen/ I teach my children superstitions/ I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand/ A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes /But she’ll never ever wear my pants.
Seventy-nine cent to your dollar/ All that bullshit from white-collars /You see my color before my vision /Sometimes I wonder if you were blind / Would it help you make a better decision?
The message is powerful but you might not even realize you’re getting an education because you’ll be too busy grooving to notice, at least at first.
What I love about this album is that it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite song. In “I Like That,” Monae’s voice flows effortlessly over a deep, droning drum & bass foundation and all the hits are in the right spot, complete with that TLC shout-out: “Sometimes a mystery, sometimes I’m free / Depending on my mood or my attitude / Sometimes I wanna roll or stay at home / Walking contradiction, guess I’m factual and fiction /A little crazy, little sexy, little cool/Little rough around the edges, but I keep it smooth /I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong /I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs /And I like that /I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one who likes that. “I Like That” is a testament to being fearless and proud in your skin no matter what anybody else thinks. My absolute favorite line in the song appears when Monae recalls a memory from her past: I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off /And you rated me a six /I was like, “Damn”/But even back then with the tears in my eyes / I always knew I was the shit.” The rise and fall of the lyrics–the cadence–is as smooth as Monae’s voice and perfectly executed. I’m amazed by how she sculpts a song and meshes the verse within the constraints of the song structure.
“I Got The Juice”, featuring Pharrell, is a slammin’ proclamation about owning one’s (fluid) sexuality. SPIN magazine referred to the tune as “the best of Dirty Computer’s homages to Prince.” (I can’t say I disagree although “Make Me Feel” would be a really obvious contender. More on that below.) “I Got The Juice” echoes Prince’s “Cream” in how it oozes sex appeal; but this smashing song goes to eleven on a scale of 10. Just as the song builds to a crescendo and you think it’s going to cool off, it ramps up for one last feminist wave of authority when Monae powerfully declares: “If you try to grab this pussy cat / This pussy grab you back ” which is a clear response to President Trump’s infamous “grab her by the pussy” statement revealed from his pre-POTUS days and now haunting him eternally. “I Got The Juice” is like an amped up “Holler Back Girl”, the femme-fatale tune recorded in 2004 by Gwen Stefani. And like Stephani, Monae does not merely holler back. If Trump could forego the catcall and move straight to the crotch grab, you know the appropriate feminist response is neither meek nor apologetic.
An incredible rapper in her own right, Monae’s lyricism in “Django Jane” is punch-you-in-the-gut good. A Guardian article entitled “You Don’t Own Or Control Me” looks closely at how personal and political apex in “Django Jane”, described as “Monáe’s rallying cry, a rebellious protest anthem for women in general (“We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you earth,” she sings….[S]he puts down mansplaining with a forceful, deadpan lyric: “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” It’s one of Monáe’s most political songs to date, and also one of her most personal, a revelation for a singer whose critics have called her presence “cerebral”, her music “controlled”, her “constructed” look.” The song may be more aptly described as a battle cry, in that the speaker militantly confront the treatment of Black Americans, and particularly Black women. Monae says that Django is ‘a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalised in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.'”
In trying to wrap up this post, I’ll just say: give this record a spin. Be blown away by the method and the message. Want to hear the MOST PRINCE-Y song on the album? Check out “Make Me Feel”: the Prince undertones and overtones are undeniable in the funk guitar rhythm and Monae’s vocal gymnastics – especially when Monae sings “good God / I can’t help it / Ah!”
In saving the best for last, Monae reserves the final dedication in her album notes for Prince-her muse and mentor-and you can’t help but think about how proud he would be of her incredible accomplishment.