Janelle Monae has always been on the fringe of breaking into the mainstream. She sang with the band Fun. on “We Are Young” — which topped the Billboard 100 for six weeks in 2012 — and she acted in not one, but two Best Picture nominees in 2016.
Monae has used an electronic wrapping paper of sorts for all three of her solo albums, but she is anything but limited. Following The ArchAndroid and Electric Lady, Monae is back with Dirty Computer. On her latest album, Monae has made her music more radio-friendly while tackling bold subject matter, crafting one of the smoothest and strongest releases of 2018 thus far.
The record’s sonic palette is held together by an innate sense of fun, and every song feels like a blockbuster in its layered elements. Highlight track “Pynk” combines guitars, harmonizing vocals and a pulsating synth. Monae leads the album with an adaptable and relentless voice, both as a singer and a rapper. In “Screwed,” she even does both, with the last minute or so dedicated to raps which flow smoothly into subsequent track “Django Jane.” The song-to-song transitions in Dirty Computer are incredibly seamless, making it a really rewarding full listen-through.
“Make Me Feel,” Dirty Computer’s first single, is its most irresistible track. The guitars are just the right amount of funky, and the breakdowns are just the right amount of epic. With “That’s just the way you make me feel,” the track may not be very political on its own, but when coupled with the record as a whole, it’s easy to see the connections and heavy-handedness in Monae’s lyrics.
Monae, who identified as a queer woman in an interview with Rolling Stone, fills the album with sexual freedom and feminine confidence, and this boldness mixes really well with the fun instrumentals. This is one of the album’s best achievements, especially given the recent failures in political discourse from other musicians.
Even the brightest songs have a sense of urgency behind them, like “So if the world should end tonight/ I had a crazy, classic life” in “Crazy, Classic, Life.” In “I Got The Juice,” a bouncy track featuring Pharrell Williams, she warns, “If you try to grab my pussy cat/ this pussy grab you back.”
The last few tracks slow down a bit, but Monae refuses to let up as she dives into her psyche with laid-back tempos that still groove. As she wonders “I’m fine in my shell/ I’m afraid of it all, afraid of loving you” in “So Afraid,” her vulnerability lends to her vocal performance and fully forms her personality as a storyteller.
Closing track “Americans” is fitting as the last song we hear, with a driving upbeat instrumental and spoken word bridge as Monae ponders, “You see my color before my vision/ Sometimes I wonder if you were blind/ Would it help you make a better decision?” The brave but optimistic lyricism is emblematic of her vision: In a world where fear and polarization is rampant, Monae won’t back down as a strong and proud woman, nor will she stop making great music.