Album review: Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer

Album review: Janelle Monáe - Dirty computer | Random J Pop
An artist making a declaration to tell a story across a set of albums which aren't packaged together is always risky, because things change. And doing so boxes you into a corner. So when Janelle Monáe announced that her albums would be part of suites back when all she had was an EP out, it was an ambitious and intriguing concept that I was dubious about her sticking to. But Dirty Computer reveals that Janelle boxing herself into a corner with a tale of androids and forbidden love may have been one of the best things that she could have done. Because it gave her something to break out of and enabled herself to see that she is bigger than a fictional tale about Cindi Mayweather and far more compelling.

We always knew that Cindi Maywether was an avatar for Janelle. But we see Cindi become dismantled to reveal Janelle. The same girl. Just living in our world instead one of her own design.

Dirty computer feels like Janelle's first ever album in a weird way, because she is giving us her. Not Cindi or android 57821. The themes of Janelle's previous albums were largely centred around oppression, loving from a distance and love being this forbidden and wholly tumultuous thing. Whenever Janelle was singing songs to us, it always felt as though it was from a perspective other than her own. But the vividness of the stories she was telling felt far too real to be fiction. There was always a slight feeling that the songs were about things that she'd experienced or felt, so the subject matters always felt real. But there was always this distance. Something not quite tangible. Janelle never seemed like she was within reach.

As with Metropolis, The ArchAnroid and The Electric Lady, Dirty Computer has a narrative. If Metropolis was about running away from a world that won't accept you, The ArchAndroid was the realisation that you can't run and The Electric Lady was about having to live in a world that doesn't accept you, then Dirty computer is about changing it. Dirty computer doesn't have an official suite number as her previous albums did, but it still feels connected to what came before. Managing to emerge as its own new thing, with no reliance on having listened to a previous album for the sake of a context.

The biggest and newest aspect of Dirty Computer is Janelle sharing a new facet of her womanhood and femininity. Janelle is very explicit about the power of her pussy and her strength as a woman on this album, as well as her weakness as a human being. This doesn't feel so much like an awakening as it does a form of liberation. Even in the moments of angst and uncertainty on this album (of which there are many) there is still a sense of freedom and relief as Janelle sings each song. The lack of restraint and the ability for her to just be an authentic form of herself; it colours the songs beautifully.

But Janelle's newfound liberation comes at the expense of her wanting to say everything and do the most. Janelle has always had issues with the edit, giving us overlong sprawling albums with one too many tracks and one too many interludes. Dirty Computer is no different. Whilst it is her shortest full length album, it still feels a tad overloaded. Some of the songs spill over with one too many minutes of music. A couple of the songs on this album transition into spoken word and rap segments. Janelle has a nice flow. But the problem with these raps is that they completely shift the vibe of a song and sap the energy out of it. Also, the raps add nothing to the songs, because Janelle is just repeating everything that she'd spent the last 3 minutes singing about. So it's like 'Okay. Here's a rap summary of what the song is about, in case you didn't understand the really basic song I'd just been singing for the past few minutes'. "Screwed" and "Crazy Classic Life" are two of the most pop and radio friendly songs on the album. In fact, they're quite possibly the most pop and radio friendly songs Janelle has ever done. They both have an amazing energy, but its siphoned out the second Janelle starts rapping her clumsy rhymes and the tempos of the songs drop. By this point, long time listeners of Janelle probably expect excess. But this feels like the first time it's occurred wholly within songs as opposed to albums having too many tracks. I found myself actually editing the songs to remove these sections so they don't drag my playlists down when they're plucked out of sequence from the album. This is not a dig at Janelle's rapping. "Django Jane" has Janelle rapping for its entirety and she absolutely kills it. Flow, lyrics, everything. But the singing and rapping hybrid just doesn't work for her, because the raps don't add anything. This wasn't something that I addressed with The Electric Lady because it wasn't something that I felt interrupted songs on that album. But here, it's an issue for me.

In terms of the songs shortlisted for this album, for the most part, the choices are justified. There is very little, if any filler. Although I would have lost the two interludes "Jane's Dream" and "Stevie's Dream" and just kept them for the Dirty Computer emotion picture. And I probably would have left "I Got the Juice" off. It feels like a leftover from a Minions film that then had the line 'Dis pussy grabs you back' tacked onto the end to make it fit into the empowerment narrative of the album. It's the only song on this thing that I skip and flat out do not like. I would have loved for Pharrell to have cut something with Janelle more in line with their Hidden Figures collabo "Isn't This the World", which would have sat beautifully on this album coming right in before "Don't Judge Me". Even the subject matter of the song fits the narrative of this album.

Album review: Janelle Monáe - Dirty computer | Random J Pop

Despite my over critique of what this album does wrong, it does a lot right. Janelle settles much more into her sound on this album than I felt she did on The electric lady; an album which felt more like a tribute album to artists that she admired, as opposed to her owning her own sound. An odd turn given that Janelle had established a sound that felt very much hers on The ArchAndroid.

Dirty Computer doesn't see Janelle doing much in the way of reinventing wheels. But she at least shows growth and moving in a new direction. Janelle revels a lot in her own womanhood on this album and its in these moments where it shines brightest, in songs such as "Make Me Feel", "Screwed", "Pynk", "Take a Byte" and "I Like That". But Janelle is also reflective and its in these moments where the walls break down and Janelle becomes wholly relate-able and within reach. "Don't Judge Me" is an ode to owning your own flaws in the face of your lover. "So Afraid" is riddled with uncertainly and anxiety, but is stunning because of it. The one thing that has been consistent about Janelle across all of her albums is her projection of fear, and it's clear to us all now in light of her coming out in every sense of the word that this was a very real thing for her. "So Afraid" feels like 2 albums and an EP's worth of questioning compounded into one song. And the thing I love most about it is that there's no resolution or declaration of no longer being afraid or ever getting over it. It doesn't bookend whatsoever. It's my favourite song on the album, because it's one of the realest songs on the album and one I personally identify with. Janelle seems much more assured of who she is as an artist and her sound on this album than she did on The electric lady, and it shows.

But when Janelle attempts to get political, it drags songs down, because that's when her wordplay becomes clumsy and songs turn into unnecessary PSA's. Janelle doesn't seem to realise when her commentaries have actually landed.

Whilst I feel that this album makes the biggest statement about Janelle as a woman, I don't think it's her strongest album musically or the one that best defines her artistry. Janelle shows a broader musical palette on this album and there even seems to be some yearning for something that will get her a mainstream hit, as evidenced in songs such as "Crazy, Classic, Life" and "Screwed". But this is offset by her insistence to get political. The juxtaposition doesn't feel smart or well placed, it just feels slapdash and try hard. It's clear Janelle is still figuring who she is and who she wants to be, but this is what makes Dirty Computer such a compelling listen. A moment in life of being fraught with trying to figure it all out is what makes Dirty computer so relate-able, especially in today's current climate.

Dirty Computer isn't perfect, but this isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's why I warmed to this album so much quicker than The electric lady. Because after two albums of Janelle trying to give us this polished, hyper realised world; Dirty computer gives us the cracks, the imperfections and the blemishes. It gives us Janelle.

VERDICT: Avast and McAffe could never

■ Crazy, Classic, Life 🔥
■ Take a Byte 🔥
■ Screwed 🔥
■ Django Jane
■ Pynk
■ Don't Judge Me
■ So Afraid 🏆