What We Missed is WMSR’s review of summer releases.
Being asked to describe yourself is one of the most difficult and complex questions possible, for we exist in constantly-shifting paradigms. On one hand, there is the macro viewing of self: as a statistic, a demographic, a political party, a gender, race, sexuality. We wonder how we fit in with the rest of society, how it treats us and how we are supposed to function within it.
Then, there is the micro view, our most personal emotional responses: what we like to eat, what we do on our lazy days, how soft we like our sheets.
Every day is a balance between the two. We read a news article about climate change and wonder how we contribute to it, then zone out the rest of the world to grab a drink with some friends.
Navigating our sense of self is complicated and oftentimes fruitless. To try and capture one’s essence—even to ourselves—is too difficult for most. In art? It’s damn near impossible. Yet somehow, Janelle Monae has done it. Her latest LP Dirty Computer is a stunningly comprehensive self-portrait that captures life’s simplest pleasures and pairs them effortlessly with ruminations on the turbulent social landscape of modern America.
Monae has always been one of modern R&B’s most interesting characters, a genre-blurring auteur who blended classical, soul and pop from decades past with forward-thinking production on her five-suite, Afrofuturistic Metropolis Saga. Comparisons to icons like Prince and Stevie Wonder were well-deserved, and even now, Monae channels the spirit and sounds of those past masters.
However, for all its 80s-tastic guitar licks and Prince-ly synth stabs, Dirty Computer is Monae’s purest and most modern pop record to date. No longer are we travelling to the year 2179; the time for stories of androids and star-crossed love has ended. Monae is rooted firmly in the present, and while the album touches on a range of topics, each feels more immediate than the last.
Monae doesn’t make you guess what she wants to sing about. She begins the majestic “Crazy, Classic, Life” with the line “Young, black, wild and free,” and later addresses racial prejudices by declaring that “I’m not America’s nightmare; I’m the American Dream.” She is a black, pansexual woman who chooses not to shy away from the revitalized hatred pointed towards her by America, but to flaunt herself proudly and have a good time doing it.
“PYNK,” a gentle and delectable synth-pop track co-written with Grimes, is a prime example of Monae’s most affirming qualities. It is an ode to women and sexuality that could stand alongside The Vagina Monologues, with plenty of sexually suggestive, winking lyrics and a music video filled with vagina pants to boot (yes, you read that right). It is a testament to femininity that is in turn gentle and soaring.
Then there’s “Screwed,” a funky, innuendo-laced odyssey in which Janelle tells us that the world is already screwed, so we might as well be, too. And it’s far from the only sex-driven tune here; the album is called Dirty Computer, and it is a well-earned adjective. Some might consider this record’s sex-forward lyrics as more reductive and hedonistic than her work in the past, but Dirty Computer’s brilliance comes from its confidence in moving away from the heady and ethereal.
It’s impossible to pick a standout track, but a good contender is the jaw-dropping finale “Americans,” which sounds as gleeful and anthemic as Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” but paints a vivid picture of the injustices in our country: “Heads go up, men go down… Jim Crow Jesus rose again.” Closing with a stirring, holistic speech that thrives on the legacy of MLK, the track reminds us that even with all her indulgences, Janelle hasn’t lost sight of the bigger picture.
That’s what makes Dirty Computer such a triumph. It is political and personal; romantic and sexy; reminiscent of the past and unmistakably modern; catchy and artistic. It’s like three grand statements packed into one airtight pop album. It’s a damn good formula, but a word to the wise: don’t try and replicate it. Everyone can find something poignant in her music, but nobody else is quite like Janelle Monae.
Rating: (8.5 out of 10)
Key Songs: “Americans,” “PYNK,” “Make Me Feel,” “Screwed”