Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Dirty Computer | Janelle Monáe

Without proper representation or respect in the current federal administration, minorities have taken to the arts in droves. An important outpouring of female, black, Latino and queer experiences have played out in music in the past few years. For better or worse, rap and hip-hop have taken to the mainstream without pop stars being the vehicles to deliver it to the airwaves via samples and guest verses – for better, perhaps, because rap historically has been the platform for reform, but for worse, as well, because the commercial side of the genre is void of the struggle that makes rap resonate. After all, it seems the biggest struggles Post Malone has had are washing his hair and refraining from facial tattooing.

Janelle Monáe, meanwhile, is a triple minority American with a lot to say. After spending the first several years of her career tied up in a proposed seven-part concept story line of dystopian futurism and humanistic robots, she embraces her place in America as a pansexual black woman – and she does so in the largest way possible. She sidesteps from her Metropolis conceptual spread with the declaration of a real-life broken code: She’s a Dirty Computer with faulty hard-wiring that allows her to recognize and experience emotion, sexuality, and inequality in the here and now.

Monáe’s narrative unfolds over a pop record with a funk soul. The minimalist, disjointed lead single "Make Me Feel" wears its Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter co-signatures on its sleeve, but it sets itself apart with its wobbly, Prince-inspired synth line and overtly sexual intentions. The Grimes-featuring "Pynk" and Zoë Kravitz-assisted "Screwed" are equally fun and sexually liberating moments – true triumphs for the woman who remained firm on having an attraction only toward androids until this album cycle. "Pynk" embraces femininity and queerness with its reference to the "inside of your... baby" and its anthemic, wailing chorus, while "Screwed" is a bit brattier as it infuses wise digs toward American politics and the sexual assailant that the country calls a president.

Talk of her sexual experiences, self acceptance, and womanhood is triumphant but never flaunting; moreover, it often acts on behalf of grander commentary. (Only when Pharrell Williams was cleared to drop the line, "Yellow like the pee," on "I Got That Juice" does Dirty Computer graze distastefulness – and even then, Monáe recovers with a stern, "If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.") And though she is so often confidently defiant in all the right ways, she does allow fragility to prevail in the crevices of this record – especially when a romantic relationship is referenced, like on standout power ballad "So Afraid" and the less dynamic "Don't Judge Me." 

Dirty Computer acts not only as Monáe’s sexual awakening, but also as her rise to power. She ignites with pride in her identity on "Django Jane," a thunderous dedication to black girl magic, while "I Like That" and finale track "Americans" look in the rear-view mirror, back to national and personal history. "I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off and you rated me a six. I was like, ‘Damn.’ But even back then, with the tears in my eyes, I knew I was the shit," she says on "I Like That." And "Americans" allows her to warp a nostalgic, wholly American sound into the ultimate satirical statement and call to action: "Sign your name on the dotted line," she sings as the final resonating line of the album.

In 2016, Beyoncé and Solange Knowles released two of the year's most prolific albums, both with the same thematic core: the black woman and the confrontation of her own existence in society. Beyoncé's Lemonade was filled with rage, provoked by both systemic racism and marital woes; Solange's A Seat at the Table, a bit more general in nature but still introspective. And in 2018, Janelle Monáe builds upon the Knowles sisters' progress with an equally important piece of work. She embraces herself as both a black woman and a queer American with strength and striking wit across this record's tightly-written, infectious tracks, then she directs action upon her experiences: "You fucked the world up now; we'll fuck it all back down," she promises. And that, we will.

Dirty Computer is available now under Atlantic Records.

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© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall