On ‘Dirty Computer’, Janelle Monáe cements her status as an art-pop auteur, without quite sparking a revolution
Hype and fanfare in the lead-up to the release of Janelle Monáe‘s third album Dirty Computer was rife and boisterous. A list of guests on the record was rumored to have included the late Prince, and Monáe has been hoisted up – rightly or wrongly – to figurehead status in the new landscape of socially conscious pop.
Right from the start, the album displays high-quality production values. The intro track with its Brian Wilson backing vocals is nothing short of sumptuous, and the arrangements throughout Dirty Computer are satisfying, with thick, bold basslines and beats that really slap.
It’s no surprise either that the album bristles with something to say, but in the hyper-consumable template of modern pop, never quite cites its sources. As one familiar with the artist might expect, almost every track makes a statement about sex, relationships, sexuality, race, politics, or American society. However, Monae rarely takes the time to properly outline her argument, and the statements at times ring of name-checking.
Whilst these issues are absolutely within the remit of both Monáe as an artist, and music as a media to tackle them, an audience can’t realistically be expected to just casually dip in an out of an issue like race or sex. It needs a proper discourse, and a holistic exposition over a whole album, or at least a track. Take the Marvin Gaye opus What’s Going On as an example, where Gaye uses the entire song cycle to reach his conclusions about big issues he was concerned with, like war, poverty, and environmentalism. When Monáe introduces one topic before moving on to something else in the next line, it gives neither space or credence to the issues she raises.
The rap section of Screwed begins with a line that needs a great deal of unpacking on it’s own: “hundred men telling me cover up my areolas, while they’re blocking equal pay sipping on their Coca-Colas”. Controlling of women’s bodies, equal pay and rampant commercialism certainly must be prescient issues to a queer black woman in the current political climate. Still, that doesn’t make it feel any less like subjects are being introduced by one hand and whisked away by another, without proper exploration.
Whilst Dirty Computer is undeniably listenable, it attempts to be relevant to an unsustainably vast array of concerns, and can’t help but feel disingenuous to most of them.
When Janelle Monáe gets one topic in her crosshairs and opens fire, the effect is devastating. Grimes collaboration Pynk sounds lifted straight off Art Angels with a funky, almost Chili Peppers-like chorus of guitar distortion, which plunges back into art-pop excellence in its verses. Lyrically sounding like it was at the same parties that inspired Lorde’s Melodrama, Pynk strips the scattershot approach, and gets on with dropping a banger of a track about vaginas.
Screwed features Zoe Kravitz, and in its intro mimics Prince more closely than even her old man ever has. Let’s not get into whether Prince did or didn’t have a hand in writing that, or any other track on Dirty Computer. But Make Me Feel is light and refreshing, and that moment of hang before the chorus and stabs of clean guitar couldn’t be more redolent of the Purple One’s golden era.
I Got That Juice is pure Beyonce, while late on So Afraid sounds somewhat by the numbers as a ballad, but allows Monae to take off into higher vocal ranges while choral arrangements paper the walls around her. So Afraid forms a succinct one-two wrap-up with Americans, which brings the album full circle with Beach Boys-esque backing vocals, and sounds more than a little like Let’s Go Crazy.
Americans also feels more successful in staying on-topic, identifying a broad issue – what does it mean to be American, with all of the social problems inherent in the country today – giving exposition to its lyrical reasoning, and forming a logical conclusion. “Until women can get equal pay for equal work […] until same gender-loving people can’t be who they are […] this is not my America” a sampled speech declares.
So whilst Dirty Computer doesn’t always feel correctly pitched, and finds it difficult at times to struggle out from under the weight of everything it has to say, it does at least prompt the audience to wrestle with these issues too. And when Janelle Monáe does provide us with a conclusion and a killer track, it’s hard to argue.
For fans of: Beyonce, Prince, Bruno Mars
Standout tracks: Pynk, Americans, Dirty Computer
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