Joel Biswas is fine being an okay computer.
Janelle Monae knows better than most that being yourself is the hardest gig in town. Long crowned pop’s “It” girl, she arrived with a fully formed mythology and universe—a heady conceptual space that demanded appreciation on her terms. The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady were vaunting in ambition and virtuosic in execution—effortlessly connecting the dots between Sun-Ra, P-Funk, Fritz Lang, Prince and Bowie via the Paradise Garage, the Limelight, and Stankonia. While critical acclaim was stratospheric, popular success was slower to arrive. Her work was something you were supposed to know and like, but the listening could feel like drinking from a fire hydrant of ideas or smothering lit TNT with a bear hug.
With Dirty Computer, the arch, Betty Davis android goddess of universal liberation finally descends from her throne to make a thrillingly cohesive pop confection. On the surface, the album is lower-stakes than what’s come before (even with an elaborate sci-fi concept about a future dystopia where non-conformist humans have their “hard-drives” cleansed by the thought police), but focus proves liberating.
Opening over a lush patchwork of Brian Wilson’s voice, Monae definitively puts her android persona to rest with a promise “to love you in this space and time.” The sparkly ’80s inspired “Crazy, Classic life” sets out her stall, that this above all is a record to laugh, love, and fuck to. “We don’t need another ruler/ All my friends are kings,” she intones in a nod to both her many rarefied mentors and collaborators—the likes of Diddy, Big Boi, Prince, Erykah Badhu, Miguel, and Solange. But it’ also a shout-out to her Wondaland collective and label—at last, a fitting home for an artist who refuses to fit in.
Powered by her most cohesive set of songs and grooves to date, Janelle and company party up in a succession of pools, limos, and club basements, as echoes of Tame Impala, Haim, Empire of the Sun, Jellybean Benitez-era Madonna, and the Minneapolis Sound weave in and out of the mix. “Pink” and “Screwed” do exactly what they say on the label while the retro-future funk of “Make Me Feel” makes all the right allusions Janet and Prince. It’s one of the songs of the year.
Slower jam “Don’t Judge Me” is achingly romantic and underpinned by the lingering fear that her paramour “just loves my disguise.” Monae may be operating in pop classicist mode, but her nods to hip hop and trap provide two of the album’s more riveting moments. “Django Jane” is a bumping cri de couer that sees her command the mic and embody black excellence while “I Like That” marries gospel-flavored balladry, coming of age reminiscences, and an earworm of a hook to take trap from the strip club to church.
The confessional interviews that accompanied the run-up up to this album suggest that Monae’s prior creative conceits were more than just her genius in full flow. They were a thrilling high-wire act of creative misdirection; psychic armor keeping the real Monae hidden in plain sight. Seven years on from her emergence as pop’s pre-eminent prodigy, Dirty Computer proves that having the courage to stay open and be yourself is a gamble worth taking. It takes serious chops to make an interlude by Stevie Wonder feel superfluous but that’s where Monae is at right now: a force of personality who is as irrepressible as she is irresistible.