The Years-in-the-Making Arrival of Janelle Monáe
On her third album, the musical superheroine opens her heart
ust a few days after releasing her sophomore album, 2013’s The Electric Lady, Janelle Monáe discussed the LP’s primary inspirations, her sexuality, her entrepreneurial practices, her love of Prince, and more on Sway Calloway’s Sirius radio program, Sway in the Morning.
For fans of the artist who’d long considered her a screwier, modern-day equivalent of James Brown or a direct
descendant of the funk savant George Clinton, the release of the album felt like a leap forward. Though still technically a newcomer, it was evident that the preternaturally gifted 28-year-old possessed once-in-a-lifetime greatness. Her musical ambition was startling, and her performative abilities were so potent, you had no choice but to sit up and pay attention whenever she headlined a stage. She seemed predisposed to the kind of superstardom experienced by spiritual antecedents like Prince or Madonna. The Electric Lady transcended the hype.
During her interview with Calloway though, Monáe made it clear that she felt like there was still more to do. “I still feel like this is the beginning of my career,” she confessed. “I don’t feel like I’ve arrived. I don’t think I’ll ever probably feel like that.”
This was surprising to hear from an artist who seemed so fully formed. But since then, Monáe has proven that 2013 was, in fact, still part of a quasi-introductory era. In the intervening years, she’s toured, tirelessly promoted label signees, and, most remarkably, established herself as a skilled actress with nuanced performances in the standout 2016 films Hidden Figures and Moonlight, both of which introduced her to much of the public.
During this period, we seemed to creep closer to whom I’d like to believe is the real Janelle Monáe. The real Monáe, though, has consistently proven itself to be an elusive concept. While she’d readily give interviews and make public appearances, Monáe always seemed cautious about indulging on her private life or revealing too much about herself. On many an occasion, she’d say she only dated androids, for instance. And before The Electric Lady came out, she almost exclusively dressed androgynously, and preferred to answer questions slowly and reticently, evidently wary of divulging too much.
Yet in the months leading up to the release of Dirty Computer, her third studio album, Monáe consistently signaled that she ready to let her guard down. The promotional singles, which all came with vibrant music videos, were more sexually forthright than anything she’d ever put out. Speculation that she was dating her newfound muse, Tessa Thompson, became rampant. Then, in a terrific Rolling Stone profile published just a day before the premiere of Dirty Computer, Monáe came out as pansexual. Later in the evening, she premiered in a conceptually stunning, hour-long “emotion picture” in which she played a sexually formidable android, kidnapped by a totalitarian government intent on wiping her memories.
With the release of Dirty Computer, the years-ago concept of “arriving” seems germane. Before, even amid intoxicating musical offerings, Monáe always seemed to be feeding audiences a fastidiously assembled version of what she thought she ought to be. With “Dirty Computer” though, she sounds free and loose, flagrant in who she really is. Resulting is an intimate, accessible, and ardent tour de force of anomalous R&B.
Over the course of the 14 tracks in Dirty Computer, it’s plain that Monáe feels liberated. On the album’s second cut, “Crazy, Classic, Life,” she protracts and musicalizes Nina Simone’s notions about being young, gifted, and black. And on the Grimes-assisted “Pynk,” which is followed by the exuberant “Make Me Feel,” she extols her newfound acceptance of her sexual identity. “Django Jane,” arguably the album’s thesis statement, is a durable rap enhanced by its unforeseeable bombast.
Being this carefree and candid is new for Monáe. Even her most exultant tracks from days past, like “Tightrope,” “Dance Apocalyptic,” and “Q.U.E.E.N.,” nevertheless felt slightly inhibited. This reunderstanding of herself is rousing. On “Screwed,” which features the underrated singer/actress Zoë Kravitz, sex is a salve for the anxieties of political uncertainty. The same goes for the seductive “Take a Byte,” which revels in the highs of sexually expressing oneself.
The slower, more theatrical moments, like “I Like That” (on which she recalls knowing that she was “the s--t” even in childhood), the atmospheric, six-minute ballad “Don’t Judge Me,” and the Brian Wilson-supplemented opener Dirty Computer, three-dimensionalize the bliss that colors so much of the LP.
By the time we get to “Americans,” the “Let’s Go Crazy ”-reminiscent closer, the album comes to look like a declaration of independence. It uncovers Monáe as we’ve never heard her: unrestrained and unmistakably contented. And herself. If 2013 wasn’t the year of Janelle Monáe, then 2018 must be. Dirty Computer marks the true arrival of the doyenne of experimental R&B.
- MAY 2, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.