Janelle Monáe
Photo: Atlantic

Janelle Monáe has devoted years to developing the saga of Cindi Mayweather, a renegade android hunted for having the gall to fall in love with a human. The meticulously crafted character is at the center of much of the Grammy nominee’s work, including the funk-opera Metropolis, and her subsequent full-length releases, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady. But Cindi has always been more than just the narrative through-line of the artist’s earlier work. In addition to representing the “other,” i.e., any oppressed group, she’s also been a stand-in for Monáe, who took on the persona in real life, assuming the role of a messianic figure branded malfunctioning machine.

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Monáe’s preternatural beauty and poise helped her look the part of an idealized life-form created in a lab, while her uncanny ability to fuse seemingly disparate genres and turn out sultry slow jams, affecting ballads, and exuberant bangers across multiple, interconnected albums pointed to a higher intelligence. But Cindi was never intended to represent perfection: Like a human, she is flawed; like Monáe, she is marginalized. The title of Monáe’s third studio album, Dirty Computer, suggests it’s a new chapter in Cindi’s story, and in the vein of the singer-songwriter-actor’s previous Afrofuturist-inspired masterpieces. But the cybernetic fugitive can rest easy, because her life isn’t under the microscope anymore. There is a concept here, but it is Janelle Monáe; there is a story here, but it is Janelle Monáe’s. And she’s outdone herself in both the execution of this vision and its resonance.

The Kansas City native has always had a knack for finding complementary collaborators, including Erykah Badu, Solange, and Miguel, as well as a desire to establish a creative arena in which to play with them (to wit: her label, Wondaland Records). For Dirty Computer, an eclectic and titillating collection of future-pop, trap-driven, and R&B-infused songs, Monáe’s tapped prodigious producers like Pharrell Williams, fellow feminist performers like Grimes and Zoë Kravitz, and music legends like Brian Wilson and Stevie Wonder to help broadcast her story. But the album’s most prominent influence—aside from black girl magic—is the late Prince, who was a mentor and collaborator to Monáe. His death in 2016 obviously prevented him from making extensive contributions, but the Purple One did provide the synth line that gets under your skin in “Make Me Feel.” And the joy he took from sex, creation, and flouting conventions can be found in nearly a third of Dirty Computer’s tracks, including “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “Americans,” and the “1999”-inspired “Screwed.”

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Monáe knows how to compose a panty/brief peeler (2013’s “PrimeTime” is most definitely grown-folks music), but she’s never displayed this kind of abandon before—and it’s utterly thrilling. Her newfound openness is necessary to tell a tale both timely and timeless; Dirty Computer is as much about falling in love as it is having your rule-breaking relationship denigrated or even outlawed. Or rather, “her” relationship—on tracks like “Pynk” and “Make Me Feel,” each heart-racing in its own way, Monáe makes it clear that she’s no longer dealing in abstracts. The desire she expresses on “I Got The Juice” is her own, as is the anxiety on “So Afraid.” The latter song’s church organ-like synths point to her small-town Baptist roots, alluding to her fear of being rejected by family and friends over Dirty Computer’s secret, which is symbolized by the “bugs” being flushed out of Jane 57821 (a callback to a Metropolis track) in the accompanying emotion picture.

Although Monáe sings that she won’t “spell it out for ya,” the multi-hyphenate artist came out as pansexual in a recent Rolling Stone interview—or, as she put it, “a free-ass motherfucker.” That revelation signifies the next step in her evolution, as an artist and an individual. Technically speaking, Dirty Computer is a wonder, deft and cohesive in its blending of genres, but Monáe’s declaration—really, a call to action—lends the album a sense of urgency. On Dirty Computer, the erstwhile Electric Lady loses the metal and circuitry, but none of her power or artistry, cementing her status alongside Prince in the hall of hyper-talented, gender-fluid icons who love and promote blackness.

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