Review: Janelle Monáe Crafts Pop Masterpiece With ‘Dirty Computer’
It’s been 5 long years since Janelle Monáe released her last album, 2013’s The Electric Lady. But it’s clear that her new record, Dirty Computer, was well worth the wait. From the dual lead singles we got in February through the very last track on the album, Janelle truly outdid herself.
February brought a double-whammy with “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane,” perhaps the two most distinct songs on Dirty Computer. While the former revs up celebratory funk pop, the latter is a rapped political manifesto with grit rather than sparkle. These two dualities extend throughout the album, forming opposing sides that make Dirty Computer feel complete.
Janelle’s earlier albums – The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady – were innovative in their presentation of a sci-fi landscape and a full cast of characters, all wrapped up in funky, soulful music. It was unique and intellectual, but still great to listen to.
This time around, though, Janelle toned that down just a bit, instead opting for more vulnerable lyrics and an immediately satisfying pop sheen. Throughout Dirty Computer, Janelle sings as herself more than her alter-ego, Cindi, and the effect is an album that is more personal and relatable. It feels like we’re finally getting to know the woman behind the music.
Janelle confesses her pain points and bad memories, then turns around and proclaims her own worth. She openly celebrates her sexuality, but also admits to doubts about whether she’s truly loved. She speaks her mind on the social injustices and political mayhem facing the world today, but also reminds us what it means to be a proud American fulfilling her dreams. And through it all, Janelle sings with confidence and assurance, and sometimes a little sass, too.
Musically, Dirty Computer maintains Janelle’s roots in funk, soul, hip-hop, and R&B. However, it also unabashedly serves up a healthy dose of pop. It’s immediately accessible, regardless of a listener’s musical background. The songs are infectious and hooky, and the most instantly enjoyable of her career. But Janelle didn’t compromise on quality or authenticity; she didn’t leave her roots behind. Rather, they are complementing a more pop direction. In effect, newer listeners will open their minds to more of the funk and soul that defines Janelle’s sound.
All in all, Janelle Monáe has crafted an intelligent, personal, and courageous pop masterpiece. From start to finish, Dirty Computer tells a story with all the highs and lows that make it real. Janelle speaks her truth, and we get more than just cheery or cool music; we get the complete package.
Dirty Computer comes with a 48-minute “emotion picture,” featuring most of the album’s tracks set to a sci-fi narrative. Watch the full video below:
Track by Track
“Dirty Computer” (feat. Brian Wilson) – The album launches with a 2-minute introduction. At first we only hear Janelle and Brian’s a cappella choir of vocals, but then it grows with percussion, synthesized blips, and guitar. “Dirty Computer” paints a picture of the album’s narrative, soon fading away to let the rest of the songs speak for themselves.
“Crazy, Classic, Life” – Following “Dirty Computer,” the next track gives us a second introduction of sorts. A man – Reverend Sean McMillan – speaks about issues plaguing America today, his sermon setting the stage for the album’s subject matter. Then “Crazy, Classic, Life” kicks in, Janelle singing about all the freedoms and joys she wants out of her life. Its celebratory sound is hopeful and light, but don’t mistake it for naiveté. The song ends with a completely different tone: rapped lyrics that foreshadow “Django Jane” later on. Social and political issues get in the way of the “Crazy, Classic, Life” Janelle desires – the one we all deserve.
“Take A Byte” – “Crazy, Classic, Life” glides seamlessly into “Take A Byte,” an instantly arresting track with sick bass and handclaps over an uptempo beat. It’s an irresistible and futuristic pop jam that you can’t help but move to. Janelle may not be “the kind of girl you take home to your momma,” but she does know how to get down to a jangling, stomping pop banger.
“Jane’s Dream” – After two carefree gems, this 19-second interlude prepares listeners for what’s next. Simple guitar and spacey sounds lead up to darker lyrical themes.
“Screwed” (feat Zoë Kravitz) – The guitar carries over into “Screwed,” a song that on first listen sounds like another fun celebration. A funky beat and pop production mask lyrics about social issues and quirks. Adding a new layer to the bubbly song, Janelle then introduces a cool R&B part, robotically proclaiming that sex is power. The outro moves into a rapped proclamation, leading right into the next track.
“Django Jane” – Along with “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane” was one of the first two songs we heard from Dirty Computer back in February. Here, Janelle raps in her low, raspy register, driving home biting lyrics. Equally a political manifesto as much as a personal one, a black power manifesto as well as a feminist one, “Django Jane” is intense and real. It ends with a callback to the previous song: a gently crooned “let’s get screwed.”
“Pynk” (feat. Grimes) – Dirty Computer moves into more delicate territory and its seventh track (it also served as the third single earlier this month). With soft snaps and pinging, “Pynk” is an airy song that feels as light as cotton candy. Janelle sings in a high, fragile voice on the verses, but then swings into a celebratory chorus. With lyrics like “’cause boy it’s cool if you got blue, we got the pink,” this song is a wonderful tribute to women.
“Make Me Feel” – Released as the lead single alongside “Django Jane,” “Make Me Feel” remains a highlight on Dirty Computer. It starts with a casual funky groove, quickly growing into a hot pre-chorus (“it’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender, an emotional sexual bender”) and then its unapologetic chorus. Many have identified “Make Me Feel” as a bisexual anthem, and no matter which way you swing, it’s exactly the pop masterpiece we all needed.
“I Got The Juice” (feat. Pharrell Williams) – We move into lighter territory with directions of “down, dog!” Uplifting lyrics (“don’t think about it – you’re #1”) combine with a tropical sound for this fresh song featuring a full verse from Pharrell.
“I Like That” – Dropped as the fourth single just before Dirty Computer, “I Like That” moves us into smooth R&B. Janelle admits her contradictions and mysteries, but proudly affirms her right to do and like whatever she pleases. She raps a personal story on the bridge, highlighting the internal strength she’s had since childhood. Against acoustic guitar, the song dances and slides as it fades out.
“Don’t Judge Me” – Cinematic, sweet strings fade in before switching gears to acoustic guitar, lingering details hovering in the background. Janelle shows off her lower register, confessing her relationship doubts as she sings, “even though you tell me you love me, I’m afraid that you just love my disguise.” This R&B track pins down the feelings that can taunt you as you open yourself up to new love. Lush strings and guitar continue to intermingle, instrumental parts seeming to lead to an end only for the song to continue. “Don’t Judge Me” stretches out over six minutes, but on a song this good, each second is bliss.
“Stevie’s Dream” – Dirty Computer offers up one last interlude before its final two songs. Over 1970s-styled guitar, a man talks about God, Allah, and Jehovah being love. It then fades away as quickly as it started.
“So Afraid” – Guitar and low vocals give “So Afraid” an unnerving vibe. Janelle sounds like she’s been crying as she croons her verses, while the choruses admit her secret fears. After the second chorus, the song grows with lasers and electric guitars. Finally, Janelle lets loose and belts it out: “I’m so afraid, ahh!”
“Americans” – After the relatable reservations of “So Afraid,” Dirty Computer needs to end on a positive note. “Americans” delivers that, starting with an epic choir over uplifting music. Janelle sings about the outdated views some people still hold, but then defies it on the chorus. Instead, she demands, “love me for who I am.” Reverend Sean McMillan returns for an MLK-styled speech declaring “this is not my America!” “Americans” celebrates diversity and love – for each other as well as the United States.
Highlights on Dirty Computer include: “Take A Byte,” “Screwed,” “Django Jane,” “Make Me Feel,” “Don’t Judge Me,” and “Americans.”
You can buy Dirty Computer on iTunes or stream it on Spotify now.