A champion of reinvention, Janelle Monáe’s albums exist as distinct shapeshifting eras; spanning from the heart-kidnapping robots in ‘The ArchAndroid’ to ‘The Electric Lady’’s bold blending of funk, soul, jazz, and gospel. Pushing the boundaries at every turn unites her every move and, ‘Dirty Computer’ is - as with everything else she puts her hand to - thoroughly obsessed with technological advances. Taking stock of the dizzying array of touchstones on this record, this also the sound of an auteur hellbent on short circuiting all convention. Earlier this year Janelle did just that with the first secret-ish airing of this record. For that, she held virtually every music journalist in London in the palm of her hand at an album playback which defied all logic. Grinding her way through the room and mounting the bar, she showcased the Zoe Kravitz-featuring ‘Screwed’, the cheeky ‘I Got the Juice’ (which Pharrell Williams guests on) and lead single ‘Make Me Feel’ with a troupe of talented dancers who also appear in multiple ‘Dirty Computer’ videos. If that fairly surreal evening demonstrated just one thing, it’s that this is a record about disregarding the rulebook, and queered up sexual liberation. And if you’re doubting her commitment to the cause, just Google the vagina trousers Janelle wore in her ‘PYNK’ music video (it should be noted that in an attempt to encourage trans inclusivity several dancers did not wear the pink trousers; a vagina does not a woman make).
‘Dirty Computer’ itself opens with a sung monologue that positions the album’s protagonist as a processor packed with viruses, a desire-swamped hard-drive that’s somehow corrupted. “I’m broke inside, crashing slowly, the bugs are in me,” she sings atop Beach Boys samples that are mangled by auto-tune, “all I’ll ever be is a dirty computer”. Whether she’s singing as Janelle or her android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather (who, according to the Atlantan singer represents the new “other”) remains to be seen; it might well be a mixture.
Taking stock of the jangling Prince riffery of ‘Make Me Feel’ - a gold cast gem of a pop song which celebrates queerness with aplomb - you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘Dirty Computer’ is simply about fun. In many ways, it is; the sexy one-liners just keep (if you’ll pardon the pun) coming. “I just wanna party hard, sex in a swimming pool,” muses ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’, while ‘I’ve Got The Juice’ is as audacious. “I’ve got juice for all my lovers, got juice for all my wives,” Monáe reels off, “my juice is my religion, got juice between my thighs”
Sexy, free, expressive Janelle Monáe holds enough appeal as it is, but typically, added complexity lies beneath these gigantic pop songs. “Wanna get screwed at a festival, wanna get screwed like an animal” announces the electric ‘Screwed’ the chorus diving in a totally unexpected direction. The joke beyond the instant appeal then clicks into place. “I hear the sirens calling, and the bombs are falling in the streets, we’re all… screwed!” it chimes jubilantly, irony at its best. “See, everything is sex,” deadpans the breakdown, “‘xcept sex, which is power; you know power is just sex, you screw me and I’ll screw you too.” Taking on sex with an incisive pen - not to mention the biggest songs she’s ever written - Janelle Monáe holds more power than ever, and ‘Dirty Computer’ might just be the record that finally elevates her to pop’s highest echelons.