The first voice heard on Janelle Monáe’s new album Dirty Computer that is not her own belongs to Brian Wilson.
Yes, that Brian Wilson. The 75-year-old Beach Boy arrives in full multi-tracked glory in an angelic chorale that meshes with Monáe’s own vocal on the title track.
Right off the bat, on the song in which she introduces the future-tech concept that we’re all flawed “dirty computers” whose glitches and imperfections should be celebrated, not denigrated, Monáe is already multi-tasking by also issuing a nerd-alert to music geeks. Hey, here’s a supercool collaboration for you: Bet you didn’t see that coming.
But by kicking the album off with the “Teenage Symphonies to God” sound of the artist who brought California surf music to its creative peak, Monáe is doing more than just showing off the genre-splicing eclecticism of her taste.
She’s also sending a signal about the scope of her ambitions and her intention to make an artistic statement on her third album, her first since raising her celebrity profile with featured roles in two prestigious 2016 films, Hidden Figures and Moonlight.
With Dirty Computer (Wondaland/Atlantic *** 1/2), she means to deal with all sorts of American archetypes in making an album of party-starting protest music that denounces intolerance and embraces inclusivity in all its forms, while arguing irresistibly that it is this diversity that always has and will continue to make America great.
Those points are underscored in red, white and blue on the next song. “Crazy, Classic, Life,” begins with a spoken interlude from a sermon by Dr. Sean McMillan in which he quotes Martin Luther King talking about the Declaration of Independence in a way that would make the document with which the nation was founded in Philadelphia in 1776 apply to all citizens, and not only white men.
“You told us these we hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal; and that they are endowed by their Creator by certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Later in the song, she announces: “All of my friends are kings” and stakes her claim as an embodiment of the democratic values at the heart of the American experiment: “I’m not America’s nightmare, I’m the American dream.” And on that track, which is one of many on Dirty Computer that plays out as a stylistic homage to Prince, she adds a simple plea: “Just let me live my life.”
From that point on, Dirty Computer takes Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” words to heart. The theme of being free to live your life as you so choose, no matter what your color, creed or orientation is ever present. The attention paid to to the album during its roll out has mostly focused on personal and sexual liberation and feminist empowerment, and it is very much about all of that.
In a Rolling Stone cover story, the Kansas City-raised Atlanta-based 32-year-old songwriter-bandleader-actress came out as pansexual — though while identifying as “a queer black woman in America” she also said that above all “I consider myself to be a free-a– [12 letter expletive].
And the album’s best advertisement for itself so far has the video for “Pynk,” the collaboration with Canadian songwriter-producer Grimes who referred to Monáe in a recent tweet as “benevolent android overlord.”
That clever, catchy, light-on-its-feet pop song famously features Monáe’s rumored paramour, actress Tessa Thompson, emerging through an opening n Monáe’s “vagina pants” as if being born for the first time. Monáe has described the song as “a celebration of creation, self-love, sexuality and […] power! Pynk is the color that unites us all.”
As a conceptual work, Dirty Computer — which is also the name of a 48-minute “emotion picture” with a sci-fi plot line about the persecution of nonconformists in a totalitarian state that you can watch on YouTube — is not quite as complex of an endeavor as Monáe’s two previous albums, 2010’s The ArchAndroid and 2013’s The Electric Lady.
That’s in part because this time she’s less interested in commenting on identity via an elaborate Afro-Futurist narrative and more inclined to reveal herself as a vulnerable human being.
Back in 2010 when she was wearing her hair in a Grace Jones pompadour and dressing as if she was going to work waiting tables, she talked to me in an interview about her working class roots, and how she feels a responsibility “to the people who are going though everyday life’s obstacles, and are felling oppressed and depressed and suppressed. I definitely want to create music that empowers and uplifts them. This is my job.”
Monáe is still working at that task, but thing are much looser and more sexualized now. There’s a sense of freedom and ease on that comes with coming out. It’s really apparent on the pop funk jams that run deliciously together in the middle of the album, such as “Django Jane,” “Screwed,”which is a simple but fun exploration of sex and power politics featuring Zoe Kravitz, and “I Got the Juice,” an enticing team up with the over exposed Pharrell Williams that nonetheless manages to sound fresh. And feisty: “If you try to grab my pussy cat,” Monáe raps. “This pussy grab you back.”
Best of all, perhaps is “Make Me Feel” a song that Monáe has said she started working on eight years ago but she wasn’t comfortable with because “a lot of the things that I knew I needed to say were very deep, very personal from the heart.” The song is a conscious update of Prince’s minimalist funk classic “Kiss,” an almost blatant remake that perhaps sounds so on-the nose because Prince himself is rumored to have played on it before his death in 2016.
On Dirty Computer, those kinetic expressions of self-realization and nods to Monáe’s heroes — there’s also a shout out to TLC, and Stevie Wonder makes an appearance — tell a story of individual and collective empowerment.
And they also demonstrate how the personal is political in the way that the best protest music functions.
Monáe isn’t one to express fiery rage in song in the manner of embittered classics such as, say, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” or Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of.”
She’s too positive and optimist in nature to go there. Which is not to say she’s isn’t tough-minded. Dirty Computer closes with a song that is plain and simply called “Americans.”
It’s a patriotic protest song that bounces to a beat that marries old school Motown with 1980s synth-pop and lyrical feels like it grows out a folk protest tradition. The songs it immediately brought to my mind were Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
Those songs found plenty of fault in the way the country treats its citizens — in Guthrie’s case, workers ravaged by the Great Depression, in Springsteen’s, indignities suffered by Vietnam vets. But they nonetheless chose to plant their flag in the only place they knew to call home.
That’s also the case with “Americans,” which was inspired by Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech that was delivered in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center in March 2008. In the song, Monáe sings about women making 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man. And she includes a spoken catalog of injustices that need to be addressed that includes “until same gender loving people can be who they are” and “until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head. Until then, the song says: “This is not my America.”
But along with that list of demands comes a pride of place, and a “This land is my land” and, even more so “our land” combative attitude that connects to the patriotic protest tradition. “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land,” she sings on the chorus, in conclusion. “I’m not crazy baby / Naw, I’m American.”