Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer (2018)

Dirty Computer is a sharp and clean electro/funk hybrid that musically sounds incredible. Spoken word sections form a narrative that succinctly captures the feelings of Americans seen as minorities; allowing them to shine in a political landscape that does not support them as it should.

Song Ranking

1.Make Me Feel
2. Americans
3. Pynk (feat. Grimes)
4. I Got the Juice
5. Dirty Computer (feat. Brian Wilson)
6. Take a Byte
7. Crazy Classic Life
8. I Like That
9. Screwed (feat. Zoë Kravitz)
10. Django Jane
11. Don’t Judge Me
12. So Afraid

Janelle Monáe is known for her exceptional recording voice, and her clean and easy tone enables her to add layer upon layer of vocal tracks in order to build rich and exciting harmonies; her voice truly is a producer’s dream. Now combine her methodology with that of Brian Wilson from Beach Boys multitrack fame and you have a perfect opening track for Dirty Computer: the third studio album from the politically-minded pop android. Speaking of the eponymous title track, Monáe says “there was nobody that I thought that could sing those backgrounds but Brian Wilson.” – it’s Monáe at her absolute best, hybridising worlds and genres with skill and production value, all whilst retaining the essence of her unique electronic funk sound.

In previous albums Monáe has used an android persona (named Cindi Mayweather) to express her feelings of being an outsider, and throughout Dirty Computer these themes certainly still remain. However, there is a stronger political edge that thrusts us into a world of reality rather than the fantasy sci-fi worlds she normally builds for us. Her lyrics have always been unapologetically black, liberal, and female, but for this album the knife’s edge has been twisted just a little bit further. Lyrics such as “If you try to grab this pussy cat, this pussy grab you back”, and “I pledge allegiance to the flag/ Learned the words from my Mom and Dad” add bite as this album marks a change in stance to being more on the attack. In order to do this Monáe has also left her guard down and revealed to us more of who she is; which in this political climate will only serve to empower younger black and LGBTQ+ listeners. To further illustrate her renewed mindset, she also directly lifts quotes from famous political figures Malcolm X (‘Crazy, Classic, Life‘) and Barack Obama (‘Americans‘). But perhaps my favourite quote from the album appears in ‘Screwed‘, whereby Monáe coolly states that “Everything is sex, except sex, which is power“.

It seems a pity that my favourite moment in the album appears in a song that I am not drawn to musically, not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with ‘Screwed’ featuring actress Zoë Kravitz, it just seems to lack the energy of other tracks whilst also feeling slightly weaker vocally and melodically, especially compared to the singles.

Pynk‘ with the ever excellent indie artist Grimes is a feminist powerhouse of a single, (read more about the excellent music video HERE) and is surpassed in my eyes only by the Prince-esque ‘Make Me Feel‘. Whereas ‘Pynk‘ features a minimalist verse with guitar led choruses, ‘Make Me Feel‘ does that and more before returning back to a minimalist chorus that is undeniably groovy and effortlessly powerful, with the help of production ideas accredited to Prince himself. A very fitting tribute to a pioneer of gender nonconformity in the black and LGBTQ+ community. (To further emphasise the black excellence, Make Me Feel was a lip-sync track on the season finale of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars 5, where Shea Coulee claimed her rightful crown against enemy of the state Miz Cracker and people’s princess Jujubee.)

In addition to the immaculate singles, ‘I Got The Juice‘ is easily a highlight. Pharrell seamlessly incorporates his signatures into Janelle’s style, and the track manages to keep the energy up (especially after the explosive ‘Make Me Feel‘). Although Pharrell’s feature is solid and punchy, I can’t help but notice similarities to his feature in Missy Elliot’s ‘WTF‘. The syncopated rhythm in his second verse is remarkably similar and thus would suggest a formulaic approach to his features, for good or for bad that’s up to you the listener.

[is anybody willing to talk about how eerily similar ‘I Got The Juice‘ is to this from the New Super Mario Bros series? I’m almost certain Pharrell is responsible for this.]

Django Jane‘ is an anomaly in the sense that it’s the only song that truly feels like it’s been written by a rap artist. As a genre-bender Janelle succeeds the most when blending worlds together seamlessly, and whilst ‘Django Jane‘ is successful in its own right with sharp political lyrics, I can’t help but wonder if the image is a good look on our Janelle. The same goes for ‘I Like That‘; the cloudlike yet clipped Frank Ocean style backing is skillful and dreamy, but the cool trap ‘feel’ I believe could be slightly unnecessary here. As a symptom of creating an album that is fresh and new, unfortunately ‘Don’t Judge Me‘ and ‘So Afraid‘ feel overproduced and underproduced respectively. In the former, the frenetic production serves as a distraction to the beautiful harmonies and songwriting that lies underneath. It is almost as if Monáe’s cool android persona has emerged for this song, and that I feel is to the song’s detriment.

In conclusion, Dirty Computer is a step up from previous albums due to the presence of an even stronger political voice and a refinement of her electronically minded hybrid sound. The album is also rhythmically and melodically infectious, cleanly produced, and really fun to listen to. Structurally, Monáe’s sound has a sophisticated edge due to the addition of extended sections added on to what could be staler radio friendly songs; Janelle Monáe has curated an album that is performance ready, and the energy we feel as a listener is musically undeniable.

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