Janelle Monáe sheds her protective android alter-ego in critically acclaimed Dirty Computer
Those familiar with Janelle Monáe’s work will be aware that she exhibits a broad range of talents.
She is a singer, producer, actor, model and most notably, an ‘android’. Historically, Monáe has interwoven a dazzling android avatar named ‘Cindi Mayweather’ into her work. However, having stepped away from music for a few years, Janelle Monáe has now released an album that is purely about Janelle Monáe.
Dirty Computer strips off the armour that her persona previously served to shield the vulnerable aspects of herself. It encourages women, queer people and people of colour to embrace their most genuine selves. After her five-year hiatus, Monáe’s return to music was accompanied by her coming out as pansexual, so it is not surprising that the idea of self-acceptance is echoed throughout the album.
This key message forms the basis of the album’s complementary sci-film (dubbed ‘emotion picture’ by Monáe herself). The film delineates a narrative involving rebellious humans which refuse to conform to society’s rules, and thus becoming branded ‘dirty computers’. The protagonist is among these outlaws, aware of the consequences of her disobedient choices, but she lives her life as freely as she can until she is captured.
While it's moral is mature, the album’s contents are, by and large, light and youthful. The lead single ‘Make Me Feel’ incorporates playful 80s funk influences, mastering a balance between contemporary bounce and old soul. Monáe, an acolyte of Prince, later revealed that he lent a hand with the record before his untimely death. For a complex artist like Monáe, this track is straightforward and comprehensible, and its primary purpose is to boast strength and freedom.
But just because Monáe drops her alter-ego, it doesn’t mean her incredible vocal and musical versatility isn't exploited in Dirty Computer. ‘Django Jane’ is a heavy-hitting track featuring fearless rapping and a prominent bassline; Monáe doesn’t just dip her toes into this unexplored rap genre, she dives in headfirst, producing a fully-fledged contemporary rap song. On the other hand, ‘PYNK’ (featuring Grimes) showcases a catchy chorus that could slot into any mainstream chart track, and the playful ‘Screwed’ with Zoë Kravitz is the epitome of female sexual energy.
In the face of all of this, Monáe acknowledges the insecurities that the Cindi persona once hid from the public eye, and it appears she is still in the process of learning to embrace them in ‘Don’t Judge Me’. With lyrics like 'Even though you tell me you love me, I'm afraid that you just love my disguise / But if I kissed you right there / Would you tremble inside, or just call it a night?', Monáe is expressing her fear of being rejected by people who eventually discover she is no longer her stage persona.
Nevertheless, Monáe’s painful musical silence has been broken by this long-awaited album and is indicative of time away from the spotlight being put to good use. Janelle Monáe has once again proved that she is a force to be reckoned with: android or not.