Being an android has its limits. For the better part of a decade, Janelle Monáe performed under the guise of her cybernetic alias, Cindi Mayweather, a fictional protagonist in a dystopian future sent to save society from its division and prejudices. Inspired heavily by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, her 2010 debut The ArchAndroid merged retrofuturism with Afrofuturism, packing moments of deeply affecting cries for understanding in the midst of an epic series of surrealist bangers. Its standout single “Cold War” might have been the one that banged the hardest, but it packed a surprising amount of heartbreaking realness amid its explosive dancefloor presentation: “I’m trying to find my peace/I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me.” For as many revelations as Monáe uncovered through her droid avatar, however, she remained an enigma—where did Cindi end and Janelle begin.
The answer to that question lies on her third album, Dirty Computer, her first album to bear no intentional connection to her long-running Metropolis series of albums and EPs. Mayweather’s been sent back to her own timeline, while Monáe’s feet are firmly planted in the present. Monáe said in a BBC interview that the album was “an opportunity to not be uncomfortable with discussing Janelle Monáe,” and that’s exactly what Dirty Computer is to an extent: Janelle Monáe directly addressing her audience, unfiltered, no psuedonyms or characters. It’s in many ways an extension of what’s been going on outside the album of late, from her no-bullshit response to Kanye West’s pro-Trump tweets to coming out as pansexual: “I’m a free-ass motherfucker.” And she wastes no time in celebrating that increasingly more visible personal identity; on the first proper song, “Crazy, Classic Life,” she has a simple, direct clapback to those who’d refuse to acknowledge her humanity: “I am not America’s nightmare—I am the American dream.”
Dirty Computer isn’t a sci-fi concept album, but it’s in large part an extension of the socio-political future-funk of The Electric Lady. It’s an album concerned with the here and now, and in large part the fallout from a country embracing its most openly racist president in years. In her BBC interview, she discusses how the album was written in response to “feeling like the people I love were pushed to the margins of society by the leader of the free world.” As such, the “dirty computer” of the album’s title is a stand-in for marginalized people—the victims of racism and homophobia and misogyny. Yet the unifying theme here is less one of an overarching narrative and more one of humanity and compassion. The subtle synth-funk sound of “Pynk” finds Monáe joined by Grimes in an anthem of feminist empowerment, while on “Django Jane” she goes much harder, fiercely declaring, “We gonna start a motherfucking pussy riot, or we’re gonna have to put ’em on a pussy diet.” Even “Screwed,” which pretty unambiguously describes the state of the country right there, finds joy in fighting back against the powers that be: “You fucked up the world, now we’ll fuck it all back down.”
Monáe worked with Prince on the album, and given that it was one of his final projects before his death in 2016, it’s hard not to hear hints of Prince throughout. It’s likely no coincidence that the album’s strongest single, “Make Me Feel,” is the one on which Monáe worked closest with Prince. It’s no exaggeration to say the track stands up to some of his best singles, and for that matter bears some similarity to “Kiss.” But Prince references crop up all across the tracklist, the next most explicit instance being the album’s closer, “America,” which opens with an electro-gospel intro before transitioning into a funky rock jam that carries a heavy dose of “Let’s Go Crazy” in its DNA. It’s touching to hear Monáe treat her friend and collaborator with such reverence here, but it’s also a reminder of how strongly she carries on his legacy.
It’s accurate to say Dirty Computer is Monáe’s most personal record to date, though as always, she turns personal identity into something much bigger. Dirty Computer speaks to Monáe’s experience as a young queer Black woman, but does so with arms outstretched. On “America,” she shares one final message of hope to everyone who shares any piece of that experience: “We will win this fight, let all souls be brave.” The encouragement feels that much more powerful because they’re coming directly from Janelle Monáe, who in making the effort to explore herself delivered a warmly universal statement, and a bold new step in her continuous evolution as an artist. It’s an album that feels not just relevant but necessary for the moment, the voice of reason that just so happens to offer the deepest grooves.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.