Music

Black and White and Pynk All Over

Files on Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, from one critic’s random access memory.

Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe/YouTube

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On the opening track of Dirty Computer, which is also called “Dirty Computer,” the first sound other than Janelle Monáe’s voice singing the title phrase is Brian Wilson, who enters oooh-ing at almost equal volume when she’s still halfway through “-puter.” Somehow sounding like it’s 1968 instead of 2018 and this is the original lost Smile album appearing right on schedule, the 75-year-old pop legend’s tones are multitracked so he can stand in for the whole of the Beach Boys, with the most cherubic, gravity-free harmonies of their “teenage symphonies to God.”

Monáe has said she felt compelled to connect with Wilson after learning that the Beach Boys’ famous gentleness of timbre evolved from the Wilson brothers trying to practice without their parents overhearing. Perhaps she was especially drawn to that story because one of her main anxieties around this album has been how her large and devoutly Baptist family in Kansas City, Kansas, would take their famous 32-year-old relative coming out as pansexual, the celebration of which is high on Dirty Computer’s to-do list (though nowhere near as high as it is on Janelle-loves-Tessa Twitter). In this song, she has been sending urgent text messages to heaven pleading for some kind of explanation. (“Text message caught up in the sky/ Oh, if you love me, won’t you please reply?”) Dirty Computer is Janelle’s grown-ass symphony to God.

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With, of course, another twist. As she sings in “Crazy, Classic, Life”: “I just wanna find a God, and I hope she loves me too.”

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Given that the Beach Boys are widely (if wrongly) perceived as composing the whitest music ever, this amounts to Monáe starting out an R&B album very much about “black-girl magic,” not by asserting purism but by muddling cultures and genres, the oppressed’s and the oppressors’, which is the (often ugly) root of all American music. Her personal operating system is crawling with influences and attractions of all kinds, not only pansexual but panmusical: “The bugs,” she sings, “are in me.” And also in Wilson, whose music derives first of all from black doo-wop, and whose voice on this track is gradually supplanted by a flanged synthesizer, as if being written over by Monáe’s creativity.

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So much of the press coverage of this record has referred to it as Monáe “finding her voice” or bringing to the forefront her “realorauthenticself. Writers and editors may have intended these as euphemisms for coming out before she finally raised the velvet curtain explicitly in Rolling Stone last week. But in the process, they’re reinforcing a myth of a unified and definitive self that Monáe’s music has always been screeching-robot–noisy about opposing. She may no longer be inhabiting the character of Cindi Mayweather, the androgynous android persona she’s used as a conceptual vehicle in her career to date, but too many observers are now interpreting that phase as simply a kind of virtual silicone-and-steel closet, rather than the transparent queering device for a techno-geek that it was.

It’s true that Dirty Computer is about sex like her music never has been before, luxuriating in the flesh and in the pleasures (and punishments) of black skin specifically. But that doesn’t mean it’s about authenticity or ego integration, or that she’s lost interest in the fluid projection of self as a 21st-century condition and metaphor—in using binary to go beyond the binary. It still has computer in the title, for god’s sake, and its release was accompanied by an online Dirty Computer dystopian sci-fi short film (or, as Monáe calls it, an “emotion picture”). It’s this hybridity that makes Monáe’s politics more effective than most 2018 woke pop: The imperative to confine nonwhite artists to a limited set of descriptors comes partly from audiences’ legitimate desires for clear camps of solidarity, but that fannish urge to essentialism can become the patsy of a patriarchal system of division and control. Monáe’s policy of noncooperation with such limits is the core of her aesthetic. She’s calling herself queer and pansexual rather than lesbian or bisexual, but her preferred tag is “free-ass motherfucker.”

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Not to downplay the importance of her coming out. The stories of black women in music who haven’t felt (and often still don’t feel) able to be open about their sexuality are many, and they often seem to track with careers that become erratic and falter, no doubt partly due to the pressures of sustaining that schism between private and public life. She told Rolling Stone, “I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you.” And now she can be seen too, even by those who didn’t know how to read between her lines of code.

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Of course the Beach Boys’ primary genre is surf music. You surf the internet on a computer; therefore “Dirty Computer” is web-surf music. How has it taken this long for a song to make this joke?

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From any other artist, the title Dirty Computer would have brought porn directly to mind. Coming from the intellectual Monáe, it’s taken weeks for that meaning to occur to me. I’m still not sure that joke is even there (or the surfing one either).

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Wilson’s presence is also a reminder of the running theme in Monáe’s career: that game recognizes game and genius recognizes genius. Stevie Wonder also appears on this album, and Monáe has been mentored and promoted by the likes of Outkast’s Big Boi and especially by the late Prince. Though it gets forgotten because he became so wary of his music being ripped off on the internet late in his life, the younger Prince was as much an early adopter and technophile as Monáe is, doing songs like “My Computer,” “Computer Blue,” and “Emale,” and becoming the first major artist to release an album exclusively online (1998’s Crystal Ball). But more importantly, she’s an inheritor of his style-crossing musical taste, his majestically playful (and gender-shmender) fashion sense, his superhuman performance energy, and his in-the-round vision of how song and presentation and rhetoric and mystique combine to make the final work of art.

She even has her own smaller-scale version of Paisley Park, a house in Atlanta that serves as the HQ and creative hub for Monáe’s Wondaland Arts Society, a collective of artists who collaborate with her and are mentored by her in turn. Many of them play key creative roles on Dirty Computer, both album and film. (This is a quality in which she exceeds her mentor, who was a great collaborator but one nobody would call a collectivist.) Persistent rumors that Prince secretly was writing Monáe’s songs were hater-misogynist guff, but he did serve as a sounding board, on the phone at any time of day or night. She’s spoken movingly in interviews about how hard it was to finish Dirty Computer without him. But I also wonder whether it would have had as much impact, if she would have had the same intensity, if he had not passed on to (as she always puts it) “another frequency”—if she hadn’t felt a pull to try to step into his shimmering purple void, knowing that while she can’t fill it, neither can anyone, and it needs guardians.

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Such musical elders’ devotions to Monáe are especially striking because out of all her talents, music itself hasn’t always seemed the strongest—too many of her songs seemed like stiffly formal exercises, created from the concept down rather than from the sound up. Rather than say she’s found her “real” self on Dirty Computer, let’s talk about how she’s discovered a more musical self, one that’s more on par with Monáe the conceptual artist, Monáe the rhetorician, Monáe the stage performer and film actor (Moonlight, Hidden Figures), and Monáe the greatest practicing American wearer of clothes, costumes, and sculptured hair.

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Dirty Computer the album has multiple bangers, where previously Monáe had precisely one, “Tightrope.” She’s finding ways to use the fact that her funk’s never exactly funky to her advantage. As a rapper, for example, she’s much more the great speaker whom we saw at the Women’s March and introducing Kesha at the Grammys, for instance. Realizing that allows her to be a more original rapper, who on a song like “Django Jane” is working neat, tight corners rather than attempting diagonal flows. On “Screwed,” her stentorian rapping is distinctly reminiscent of Madonna on “Vogue,” and it seems like a perfect counterbalance to Monáe’s heritage from Prince to draw on his ’80s and ’90s female counterpart—a reclamation of the erotic politician we lost when Madonna’s Sex book and Erotica album proved too much for the mainstream. (The Madge voice returns at the top of “Americans” too, after some uncannily “Let’s Go Crazy”–esque church organ.) “Screwed” is a blowout hedonism-versus-apocalypticism scenario—are we all screwed, and if so, should we all screw? It’s not my favorite track, but it might have my favorite line: “You fucked the world up, now/ We’ll fuck it all back down.”

The tracks I love the most are, of course, the all-out Prince tribute “Make Me Feel” (the best “Kiss” sequel amid a field strewn with fallen imitators) and “Pynk,” which swipes an approach from guest vocalist Grimes (who’s been missing from the airwaves for too long) to weave a uniquely delicate, plush pink-swaddled texture for perhaps the most extended tribute to the vagina, labia, and tongue in the history of popular song. And definitely I like “I Like That,” co-produced by Atlanta’s veteran studio stars Organized Noize (behind truckloads of classic-era Outkast, not to mention TLC’s “Waterfalls”), which also includes some of Monáe’s most emotionally detailed personal storytelling.

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In each of those cases, Monáe sounds like she’s at ease with the fundamental squareness of her vocal and sonic instincts, always the paradox about this artist who’s otherwise one of the hippest women in America. A few listeners have compared moments on this album to Taylor Swift, and it’s closer to the truth than I’d have guessed. They’re both nerd auteurs whose relationships to rhythm are arm’s-length in a pop period when rhythm rules. Monáe’s at her best leaning confidently into her queer-squareness until it multiplies and forms an electric kind of houndstooth pattern, instead of a series of walls for her to run into because a song’s been built with nothing but left turns at right angles. On this album, she’s more sparing with the trick moves—such as the chromatic falls in the pre-choruses of “Make Me Feel” (literally bending the scale on the very words sexual bender) or the little stutter-gasp cadences in the “oh me, oh my” refrain of “I Like That” (which give proof to Monáe’s boast, “I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs”)—and they’re better for it. They can stand out from the grid this way, like the brightly colored accents she’s lately added to her former black-and-white uniforms.

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The videos are still better than the songs, but not by as wide a gap. And maybe only because they are also better than almost all her earlier videos.

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Dirty Computer the “emotion picture,” however, is not keeping the Lemonade visual album” up at night. It’s a good-looking slice of amateur, Trump-era, allegorical sci-fi (described by everyone as a Black Mirror episode set in a Handmaid’s Tale–ish world, because that is the only way to describe it), incorporating the music videos, with Monáe and Tessa Thompson (and a token male lover, but who cares) as the would-be resistance. It does reinforce the themes of the videos and the album but is nowhere near as memorable as either, unless I have been subjected to the film’s “Nevermind” gas (Nirvana tribute or Nirvana diss?) since watching it. In which case, please send Tessa to rescue me.

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The optimistic side of the dirty-computer concept predominates here, that of nonconforming pathways in our machinery-subverting social conditioning. As she extends it on “Take a Byte” (where Eve’s apple is a Macintosh): “Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can’t pretend/ Oh, what a surprise.” But the way computers in 2018 are dirtied by fake news, corporate and political data mining, etc., is here too. As the gradually expanding subgenre of anti-Trump albums goes, Dirty Computer wears its topical references smartly, in ways that won’t seem worn out next year and could have been applied almost as easily to any other phase of American imperial and capitalist malfeasance, like the George W. Bush or Reagan years.

In “Crazy, Classic, Life,” there’s a sound clip of Pastor Sean McMillan discussing what Martin Luther King Jr. said about the Declaration of Independence, and then Monáe sings, “We don’t need another ruler/ All of my friends are kings.” The “ruler” bit is a shot at Trump, but the richer image is of any would-be tyrant trying to suppress a nation of Dr. Kings. She goes on, “I’m not America’s nightmare/ I’m the American dream,” in the best tradition of dissenters and marginalized people refusing to let anyone tell them they’re not “real” Americans. That thought comes back up on the exuberant final track “Americans,” with another McMillan excerpt: “This is not my America/ But I tell you today that the devil is a liar/ Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.”

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Monáe’s example is revealing of just where Kanye West, the other major black American pop artist who’s made news this week, has gone wrong. As egocentric as he’s always been, before now West rarely seemed to exempt himself from the black experience. If anything, he sometimes politicized personal matters (celebrity feuds, award-show prizes, clothing lines) out of proportion to more humanitarian issues. Now, like a Fox News pundit, he has, at least temporarily, bought into the bootstrapping libertarianism so enticing to highly successful white Americans, as if individuals are the pure authors of their fate, and history, community, luck, and infrastructure have no bearing. Monáe values her “free-ass motherfucker” self-definition and self-expression as much as West does, but she’s not deluded about the fact that they happen within what social boundaries and structures permit, and if there are to be more women like her, those possibilities have to expand.

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So if some of the praise for Dirty Computer is more extravagant than the music quite lives up to, it’s because it’s the vision of an album that the despairing American left in 2018 would have had to invent if Monáe didn’t exist. And Monáe knew that, which is why she invented herself.

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Not to mention, pussy pants.