Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe has layers. It has layers of complex, important topics like race, sexuality, persecution, fear and hope. It has layers of musicality that are hard to find in today’s age of triplets, catchy choruses and bass drops. Most importantly, it has layers of Monáe herself.
Dirty Computer is Monáe’s third studio album, coming after a five-year hiatus following The Electric Lady in 2013. Dirty Computer is the first Monáe album to separate from her Cindi Mayweather Metropolis narrative, a story about an android who falls in love with a human and resolves to free robotkind from bondage.
“There has to be a mediator between the have-nots and the haves; between the oppressed and the oppressor,” Monáe describes in an interview for The Grammys. “And Cindi Mayweather is that.”
A narrative film also accompanies Dirty Computer, which Monáe refers to as an “Emotion Picture”. The film is a dystopian sci-fi that follows the story of Jane 57821, a person (referred to as a computer in the film) who has been branded an outlaw for being themselves.
The themes of Dirty Computer are entirely Monáe. From an upbeat statement of who she is and what she wants (“Crazy, Classic, Life”) to her pent-up frustration and desire to empower (“Django Jane”), each song represents different elements of Monáe’s persona.
“Django Jane” is a highlight for me. Not only does the music never fail to energize, but also the lyrics are there to, as Monáe describes, “remind myself, and other women, we’re magical.” Now, I am not the intended audience for this track. Nonetheless, the message still resonates.
Other highlights include the anthem “Make Me Feel,” a funky and ridiculously catchy track that received “Best New Track” by Pitchfork shortly after its release. In “Make Me Feel,” one can hear Prince’s influences most clearly. In an interview with The Guardian, Monáe revealed that Prince was assisting with Dirty Computer before his passing. This collaboration is evident in the sounds of the entire album, but “Make Me Feel,” with its synth lines, bears the strongest mark of Prince’s influence.
At the risk of sounding like a single follower, “I Like That” is another standout for me. The track mixes trap snares with Monáe’s smooth voice and the message that she unapologetically likes what she likes. This holds special significance for Monáe who has recently become more open about her sexuality.
“Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women,” Monáe says in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”
“Crazy, Classic, Life” explores another topic close to Monáe. She explores her identity as a young black woman, speaks about her journey with her identity, and finishes by proclaiming her pride in it.
“Remember when they told you I was too black for ya?” Monáe asks the listener. “And now my black poppin’ like a bra strap on ya.”
Musically, the album takes heavy influence from the 80s. At times, I felt like I was back in my parents’ vehicle road tripping to classics. Monáe takes this influence and fuses it with modern trends in a masterful way. Musically, the album is top-notch. My only complaint with this album, and I mean only, is some lyrics verge on Big Sean cringe. These fleeting moments take away from compete immersion, but don’t detract from the albums excellence. In today’s difficult political climate, the timing of Dirty Computer couldn’t be better. It’s definitely worth adding to your summer music checklist.