I first became obsessed with Janelle Monae in grad school when Electric Lady was released in 2013. Monae’s raw energy and danceable tunes were a go-to pick-me-up with a heavy dose of intellectualism: her musings on racism, sexism and the porous distinctions between human and computer-based inspired me to delve into post-humanism and afro-futurism. Now, the raw and vulnerable Dirty Computer extends my infatuation with Monae’s music as her android persona becomes a vehicle for exploring her more earthly physical and political desires.
What first drew me to Janelle Monae 5 years ago—her ability to manifest a sense of fun with a dark twist—gets amplified with the playful fifth track, “Screwed” featuring Zoe Kravitz. Its Prince-inspired guitar riffs and descriptions of calamity make the apocalypse sound like a pretty good time: “I hear the sirens calling / and the bombs are falling in the streets / we’re all screwed.” The reckless abandon and DGAF energy gets slowed down with the bridge that intones “Sex / body / we’re gonna crash your party,” then kicks back into gear with an effervescent background of giggles and a clap track.
“Screwed” is destined to become a summer bop along with “Crazy Classic Life,” which begins with a reproduction of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the song’s airy, 80’s New Wave feel would be right at home in San Junipero. The verses and chorus yearn for carefree pleasures— “Young, black, wild and free / naked in a limousine”—while acknowledging that Monae’s blackness prevents her from these YOLO pleasures. Monae transitions from soaring whole notes to a growly rap in which she declares “The same mistake / I’m in jail / you on top of shit,” and “I was kicked out / said I’m too loud / Kicked out / said I’m too proud /But all I ever really felt was stressed out / kind of like my afro when it’s pressed out.”
These moments of fun contrast with musings on temptation and desire. Monae’s android persona gets earthy in the visceral “Pynk” featuring Grimes. A bubbly rhythm crescendos into Monae’s breathy soprano, and we all know what she’s singing about. In “Take a Byte,” Monae declares her android self and addresses a lover in denial—“Your code is programmed not to love me / but you can’t pretend”—and invites him/her to take a piece of her: she won’t tell.
As Dirty Computerprocesses temptation and a desire for connection, it also exposes the drawbacks of an android image: everyone thinking you’re an unfeeling machine. “Don’t Judge Me” begins with a contemplative acoustic guitar set against a background of gentle ocean waves. Monae mourns, “Even though you tell me you love me / I’m afraid you just love my disguise.” The following track, “So Afraid,” features a Nirvana-esque acoustic guitar intro accompanied by some of the darkest lyrics on the album. Monae admits “I’m fine in my shell / I’m afraid of it all / afraid of loving you.” And the wobbly, vibrating organs that close out the track are like something out of a bad android dream.
The heaviness of “So Afraid” leads into the closing track, the exuberant “Americans” and its glassy, high-pitched synths and up-tempo syncopated claps. Monae pledges allegiance to the flag and wants a “big ol’ piece of American pie” while issuing a warning: “Don’t try to take my country / I will defend my land / I’m not crazy / I’m American.” Midway through the track is an echo of the MLK speech from “Crazy Classic Life” that challenges American belonging: “Until women can get equal pay for equal work / this is not my America / Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head / this is not my America.”
Monae’s android is intertwined in the material realities of inequality in America and questions where it belongs within this dysfunctional and dangerous landscape. When Monae sings, “Love me baby / Love me for who I am,” she appeals to her country for acceptance, and when the songs ends with a call to action—”Please sign your name on the dotted line”—Monae invites us to also question our Americanness and sign up for the kind of country we want to live in.