Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer
By Audrey Valbuena
“It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender,” Janelle Monáe sings in “Make Me Feel.” On her first visual album, Dirty Computer, Monáe employs visuals that are every bit powerful, while also maintaining a subtle, sensual tenderness. The result is an abundant celebration of Queer Black femininity, equal parts classic and futuristic, that shows Janelle Monáe in full celebration of her art and herself.
Appropriately categorized as an Emotion Picture, Dirty Computer follows Monáe as Jane, a human-robot – we’re never sure which – as her memory is wiped by Big Brother-like men dressed in all white who watch while her memories are played. They watch “Jane” frolic with her lovers – one masculine-presenting and one feminine – through deserts, across parking lots, and ultimately into the arms of these unbeknownst powers who now clean her of her “dirty” mind.
Through this Black Mirror-esque story, Monáe’s sound evolves. She starts with soft, smooth reverberant sounds on leadoff track “Dirty Computer,” carrying an exhaustion and breathlessness that emanates throughout the space of Jane’s memory. Then we are imbued with energy, as we follow Jane in her memories through “Crazy Classic Life,” “Take a Byte,” and “Jane’s Dream.” Her sound then throws it back to Madonna-aged 80’s pop in “Screwed,” with a simplistic tempo backed by upbeat guitar tempos. It’s an R&B take on “Like A Virgin” – though far removed from anything reminiscent of virginity, as Monáe sings “You fucked the world up now, we'll fuck it all back down // Let's get, let's get screwed.” “Django Jane” then explodes with fresh rap punctuated by exasperation and understated power, with Monáe taking control of her presumably real memories, turning their pain into celebration: “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish // Black girl magic, y'all can't stand it.”
However the real showstopper of Monáe’s first visual album is “Pynk.” Monáe stands in a desert, surrounded by a squad of women, wearing a pink velvet leotard underneath giant, feathering vagina pants. Yes – vagina pants. They overwhelm the scene, as they open and close and somehow mimic real actions of the human body. The scene then cuts to Monáe with a women’s head emerging from the center of the vagina pants, the presumed love interest of Jane’s character. The scene is jarring but captivating. It is immensely full of blatant sensuality yet somehow gentle. The pop-jazz music infused with Monáe’s high pitched harmonies create a sort of bubble gum pop, Marina-and-the-Diamonds-meets-Beyoncé’s-“Blow” vibe. This, in contrast with the cuts of vagina-like objects – an orange with an ice cube, rocket red lips popping bubble gum, and a rhythmic workout scene – create a mix of emotions circulating around sensuality that build and build in perfect anticipation of “Make Me Feel.”
“Make Me Feel” continues on – it is the track most similar to Monáe’s previous work, but with a little bit of Bruno Mars mixed in. Over classic beats, and a bit of an 80’s vibe, her lyrics ride with seduction. “I Got That Juice” then employs a stronger beat to bring back the power from “Django Jane,” until “I Like It” returns to Monáe’s classic R&B vibe, which mellows out for the rest of the album with “Don’t Judge Me” and “Stevie’s Dream” as we watch Jane succumb to memory loss and trap her other lover – this time a man – in the same cycle that captures her memories in its abyss.
Dirty Computer is visually stunning: it is unabashedly feminine, celebrating color and curves all at once. With its subtle sexuality, it carries the viewer through this sci-fi world – and of course, through the many forms of Janelle Monáe. As she told Rolling Stone, "Being a queer black woman in America—someone who has been in relationships with both men and women—I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker." Dirty Computer is the embodiment of that – Monáe is ridiculously confident as the “Other” (as she refers to representing any being that is oppressed). She sheds her uniform – the tuxedo – in favor of brights shades lipstick, pops of highlight and of course, pink. She takes her “dirty” computer and makes it free to be queer, Black, feminine and beautiful.