Dirty Computer (Warner)
What’s this about then?
Sex? Politics? Sexual politics?
Race? Society in flux? Race as part of that society in flux?
Yes, all of the above.
R&B? Hip hop? Hip hop-influenced R&B?
Electronica? Pop? Electro-pop?
Yes, all of the above.
1980s? The 21st century? The ‘80s refracted through a 21st century lens?
Sexism? Music business? Sexism in the music business?
Oh god yes, all of the above. And more.
Having pretty much shed the Cindi persona which allowed her some distance from the songs on her previous albums – whose areas of interests were not really much different to those covered here – Janelle Monae has shed a few more things, beginning with anything obscuring the message.
If you need any confirmation of this check out the filmclip for Pynk, whose imagery is unabashed, hilarious, frank and provocative, to match a song which has no fucks to give for either subtlety or for that matter point-scoring, content it is making it point just as it is.
With a nonchalant rhythm of bubble synth line, finger snaps and keyboard bass, a delivery in the verses of almost desultory languor (picked up a step or two in the choruses when the guitars reverberate), and a refusal to over decorate that is down to confidence, it would sound like a taunt to the insecure, but like a statement of the obvious to anyone else.
Then there’s clip itself which is the feminine-in-excelsis as euphemism is inverted, explicitness toyed with, and humour-pricking done with joy. Put it this way, every possible stand-in for pink bits seems to feature here.
If that song or that clip bothers you, it’s best you don’t go much further with Dirty Computer. That said, if that song makes you stop and think about why it bothers, or at least startles you, then I would encourage you to explore Dirty Computer.
The dirty computer of which Monae speaks, is us - our bodies, our minds, our frailties and our successes. Whereas previously she’s described a (not necessarily paranoid) android as her front, if not her avatar, this is certainly flesh and blood, and Monae celebrates the physical in all its forms.
Still, you don’t need Cambridge Analytica to explain the songs here, which canvas not just how we manage the outputs from that computer (in attitudes, relationships, behaviours) but the corruption in a lot of the inputs (from religion, media and politicians to toxic masculinity and warped conservatism).
For all the commentary on matters political and social which deepen this album, it is Monae’s willingness to swim deeply in sexuality which will leap out at you. Leap out at you and consume you. Especially when she mixes all those elements together. As she puts it in the TLC-meets-CNN Screwed, “everything is sex, except sex which is power …. now ask yourself, who’s screwing who?”
In the island-flavoured, loose hip cocktail I Got The Juice, whose liquid rhythm and liquid metaphors could make Vanity 6 blush, she warns a salivating Pharrell Williams that “if you try to grab my pussy, this pussy grab you back”. During the offhand guitar/squashed keyboard/whispered backing vocals vamp of Make Me Feel she describes a “sexual bender” during which she takes a lover on a shag carpet, and explains exactly why this is going to be good. “Good god I can’t help it”.
Through the languid seduction ballad Don’t Judge Me she wonders whether this lover merely “loves her disguise” but asks not to be judged, the creamy textures of the song backing her argument that it’s what she’s doing to this woman that should matter right now. And with the half machine/half flesh Crazy, Classic, Life she posits that she isn’t after a ring, she doesn’t want to be let down, she only wants to tell the truth in a life and personal choices which may scare some – let’s call one of them Mike Pence for argument’s sake - but “I’m not the American nightmare, I’m the American dream”.
Of all the influences and background stories on Dirty Computer the most obvious, the most telling, and the most adventurous is Prince Rogers Nelson – a man whose third album was called Dirty Mind, whose sexuality (at least when he was young and pre-Jehovah Witnessing) projected ambiguity, and whose musical adventures took him into the kind of spare sounds, louche basslines, teasing guitars, or outright R&B/pop crossovers so common across Monae’s album.
But rather than pick out individual sounds, riffs or rhythms(and they are there right up to the joyous, righteous, patriotic and defiant closing song, Americans, which could well have come from Dirty Mind) it’s better and smarter to talk about the intent, which is the biggest nod of thanks to Prince.
Monae’s dance through styles and tones on Dirty Computer is free of inhibitions and, for the first time in her already satisfying career, free of limits. This is someone happy to play wherever she wants and keen to see what’s on the other side of whichever wall she encounters. She is, in every way, on song.