Janelle Monáe

Dirty Computer

Atlantic

May 07, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


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Although Janelle Monáe has never been shy, she has not always spoken openly about her beliefs. Her past albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, were extravagant genre-mash-ups that pulled ideas from rock and classical music as effectively as they did from soul and hip-hop. However, they were essentially concept albums.

The android metaphor, used to articulate the struggles of ethnic and LGBTQ minorities, was thinly-veiled but it set up a barrier between the listener and Monáe. On Dirty Computer, that veil has been lifted. Although the metaphor reappears on the title track and "Take a Byte," it does not control the narrative. There is no doubt that these songs are about Monáe, although there had been little doubt before. The result is the most effective pop record of the year so far; one that is bold, fresh, and utterly infectious. 

Dirty Computer uses many of the influences that have characterized Monáe's past work but while her older albums felt nostalgic, this time she moulds them into something new. "Screwed" is a f***ing-for-freedom anthem that pairs the Minneapolis Sound with sickly sweet Katy Perry-esque pop. "Pynk" opens with a synth riff indebted to Yazoo's "Only You" and abruptly morphs into a chorus that sounds like TLC playing "Teenage Dirtbag." Most impressively, "Make Me Feel" is a Prince tribute that feels like a worthy successor, matching some of the Purple One's funkiest singles. But while the musical joys on Dirty Computer are many, the album's revelations are in its lyrics.

By freeing herself from the narrative constraints of her past albums, Monáe speaks more directly and finds new pockets of vulnerability in her songs. On "Don't Judge Me," the album's emotional centrepiece, Monáe questions her lover"Even though you tell me you love me/I'm afraid that you just love my disguise." But throughout most of this album, she is defiant"I am not America's nightmare, I am the American dream." Dirty Computer may be a glossy pop record, but it is a deeply personal one. It is so enjoyable because of how unfiltered it is.

Ever since the release of The ArchAndroid, Monáe has been tipped to be a future icon. On Dirty Computer, she finally makes good on her promise, keeping the fearlessness of her earlier albums while refining her focus. This album is only 48 minutes long, but it feels as ambitious and grand as her previous 70-minute releases. In the process, she has raised the standard for her music. Monáe has previously been too leftfield for the mainstream. Now, she is attempting to emulate the blockbuster pop of her youth and on this record, she comes very close. If the worst thing you can say about Dirty Computer is that it isn't quite Purple Rain, you know you're talking about a very special artist. (www.jmonae.com)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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