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Albums Of The Year: ‘Dirty Computer’ and The Liberation of Janelle Monáe

On her triumphant LP, Monáe shows that everything that makes her “dirty” is uniquely, painfully, and inseparably American.

By Clarkisha Kent

On April 26, 2018, Janelle Monáe came out as pansexual. I remember because I practically shit myself as I frantically let one of my editors know that I wanted to write about it. I needed space to digest what this announcement meant, considering that it had come only one day before the release of her third album and “emotion picture,” Dirty Computer.

What is a Dirty Computer? As Ms. Monáe told Beats 1’s Ebro Darden in April: “Songs one, two, three, four — that’s the reckoning. That’s the sting of being called n----r for the first time by a white person,” she said. “Feeling the sting of being called bitch by a man for the first time. Feeling the sting of being called queer or a f----t by homophobic people. It’s a reckoning and dealing with what it means to be called a Dirty Computer.”

Those first songs — “Dirty Computer”, ‘Crazy, Classic, Life”, “Take A Byte”, and “Jane’s Dream” — stay with you, adorning your ears with defiant guitar chords and bombastic synthesizers. Dirty Computer's first act serves as one’s reckoning with self and how one’s self contends with the world around them — a world that might not readily accept them. The subsequent act contends with what this reckoning is like when you are an “other.” And the final act wrestles with the fear that accompanies you when you have to confront that reckoning with your own truth.

This spirit of reckoning, of simultaneous anger at having had to hide oneself and of a cheeky jubilation that one no longer has to hide, is what sixth track “Django Jane” is all about. “We ain’t hidden no more, moonlit n---a, lit n---a!” is what Jane declares (in obvious nods to Monáe’s turns in critical and commercial smash hits Hidden Figures and Moonlight). And in the same song, she reminds us of the lines she’s had to toe her entire career: “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish?” It’s a callback to and callout of the sheer confusion many expressed for Monáe’s earlier affinity for nicely-pressed suits. “Make Me Feel”, an incredibly funky song where you can practically feel the presence of her mentor and friend Prince, serves a similar purpose here, too, albeit in a more colorful fashion. In a vibrant display of sexual freedom and openness, Monáe sheds the constraints of her former persona and, at one point, humorously shuffles between sexy love interest Ché (Jayson Aaron) and even sexier love interest Zen (Tessa Thompson) under what has become lovingly known as “bisexual lighting.”

In short, this is where Monáe re-introduces herself as… herself.

Which is perhaps the biggest statement she could possibly make thus far. It serves as a nod to her Black and queer fans that we should give ourselves permission to be ourselves, but also as an admission that she was afraid to give herself that space in the past, on previous albums like The Electric Lady and The ArchAndroid where we saw her adopt the alter ego of Cindi Mayweather. Monáe talked at length about how Cindi, her android persona, represented the “other,” how she greatly related to being “the other,” and how it helped her cope with entering her chosen industry as a different type of “other.” An “other” that defies, while paying homage, to others that preceded her. It makes her switch here, in Dirty Computer, that much more enthralling. Monáe reintroduces herself here as Janelle (or, rather, Jane 57821, per her emotion picture), someone who defied all your expectations coming into the industry; a queer Black woman who loves women, men, and everyone in between, and the same woman who probably inspired you to look up “pansexual” in the dictionary for the first time in your life.

Still, that isn’t the last impactful thing Monáe does with this album. There’s something about Monae’s contentment with the fact that she is a Dirty Computer, someone who society has deemed too eclectic to function and has decided that she should be “cleaned.” Yet, she’s still here. She persists. This persistence, to exist as one is, is also Monáe’s unique vision for America; she says just as much in “Americans” when she sings “love me for who I am," a message compounded upon by the line “I’m not America’s Nightmare, I’m the American Dream” that she belts in “Crazy, Classic, Life.” It illustrates, once again, that all her marginalizations, differences, and everything that makes her “dirty,” is uniquely, painfully, and inseparably American.

To put it plainly, Dirty Computer is a masterpiece. I don’t use that word lightly, but what else do you call such a full body of work? It uses Monáe’s love for science fiction to gift us poignant visions of contemporary love, self-love, and acceptance infused with just the right touch of Afrofuturism, but also offers a harrowing warning of what our futures may hold if we don’t fight people like our country’s current president, a man who has bragged about his ability to “grab [women] by the p*ssy.” What do you call an album that declares that if we are boxed in and made to abandon the most amazing parts of ourselves — our Blackness, our queerness, or non-binaryness, etc. — in order to live a conforming life, then that life is not worth living at all? That to forget ourselves, and what makes us special, would be to essentially die?

You call that album a masterpiece.

Janelle Monáe didn't just use this album as an opportunity to liberate herself from the limitations that the industry had placed on her. In liberating herself, Monáe liberated many of us as well. And thus changed the course of her career, as well as pop culture, forever.