Fifteen years after dropping her debut EP The Audition, Janelle Monáe could finally be on the cusp of superstardom.
Since she released 2013’s acclaimed second album Electric Lady, she’s conquered Hollywood with roles in Hidden Figures and the Oscar-winning Moonlight and starred in a brilliant Pepsi Super Bowl commercial in which she homaged Madonna. Surely it’s about time this super-talented triple threat scored a solo hit to rival her chart-topping Fun collaboration We Are Young.
Trailed by the excellent Prince-esque buzz hit Make Me Feel, this third album is definitely her most personal and accessible yet. On early releases, Janelle would sometimes hide behind her android alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, but here she peels back the persona to show us the real Janelle.
She shares an uncomfortable high school memory on I Like That, celebrates her fluid sexuality on Make Me Feel, and claps back at critics on the remarkable empowerment song Django Jane. “Remember when they
used to say I look too mannish / Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it,” she raps defiantly.
Elsewhere, she shows her ambition on the grandstanding ballad So Afraid and a flair for catchy electro-funk grooves on Crazy, Classic, Life and Take a Byte.
But the most revelatory moment is probably Pynk, a collaboration with Canadian dream-pop genius Grimes. Propelled by Monáe’s most delicate vocal performance to date, this super-pretty electro tune samples Aerosmith’s sexist 80s hit Pink and reworks it into a heady celebration of womanhood and queer female sexuality. Monáe’s feminism also shines through on the reggae-flavoured Pharrell collaboration I Got the Juice, on which she warns Trump and other douchebags: “If you try to grab my pussy, this pussy grab you back.”
But this doesn’t mean Dirty Computer lacks a sense of fun. Screwed sounds a bit like Gwen Stefani covering Prince and features the fabulous non-sequitur: “I live my life on birth control / I lost my mind to rock ’n’ roll.” In fact, the only real criticism is that Monáe channels the Purple One a little closely across the album as a whole.
Then again, it feels silly to complain when she includes a song like Americans, a woke update of Let’s Go Crazy on which she calls out her country’s sexism, racism, homophobia and gender pay gap. Honestly, this is a dazzling album from an artist who’s now fully embracing the power of what she has to say.
Gay Times gives Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer – ★★★★