Janelle Monae has spent most of her career telling the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android who fell in love with a human. Inserting herself in to a multi-act story focusing on the oppression of The Other, Janelle has spent two albums and an EP in her sci-fi universe. With Dirty Computer, her latest album/”emotion picture,” Janelle sheds the character but continues to wield a sci-fi universe to tell her story.
Following a lovely opening intro with Brian Williams, the album starts properly with a quote from Dr. Sean McMillan, as “Crazy, Classic, Life” ushers us into the world of Dirty Computer reminding us the promises of the Declaration of Independence. With the framing of “You told us…” as opposed to the actual “We hold…,” we are reminded that these truths were not given to everyone.
In the press interviews for this album, Janelle confronted a topic that’s often brought up to her concerning being a bisexual or lesbian. As she is photographed with actress Tessa Thompson at events and Tessa is an erstwhile love interest in the film accompanying the album, Janelle finally noted that she is pansexual. This is a question that has come throughout her career as she plays with traditional notions of gender and sex like her mentor, Prince. Janelle has usually shied away from the topic as she wished to focus more on the art she is creating rather than who she is dating. But for a work that sees her stripping down to a more emotional and personal core, it is near essential for the work to be put out by a queer woman.
Representation in the media is, in my mind, always worthwhile. In conversations I’ve had over the past few weeks, a friend mentioned why did it matter in 2018 whether a person was being truthful about their sexuality and what came to mind immediately was my own experience with Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan has not broached the subject of his sexuality with any in the media and often uses religious symbols in his work to speak about his feelings and how he relates to love in this world, but, as a young gay man, I heard so much of myself in his lyrics. As the years go on, his references to outright sexual encounters are more blatant and his work for Call Me by Your Name suggests he is certainly gay-adjacent. I’m not a fan of trying to project sexuality on others and I will again state that Stevens has not stated his sexuality, but I will say, that man is the king of sad, gay music. His sad, gay music helped me make sense of my sad, gay life (it’s not all sad, I’m just ridiculous) and helped me last year open up to being an active gay man. So when I hear whether it is important for an artist to be open about their sexuality, I’m wholeheartedly in the category of “Yes.”
Janelle coming out as a queer, black woman informs the entire record as she writes an ode to the color “Pynk” and in album opener “Crazy, Classic, Life” asks to find a god and hope that she loves her too. Of course, much of this album is a tribute to the legendary icon, Prince, as well. Janelle worked closely with Prince and often spoke of his impact on her life and it is on display here more than in any of her other work. The jubilance and emotive pull that Prince’s music had is here in spades with the sensual tornado of “Make Me Feel” to the album closer “Americans.”
When I went through this album at first, I expected something heavier, something more expansive and challenging. That’s not to say that Dirty Computer isn’t those things but it didn’t sound like what I was used to with Janelle. While speaking about the album, an acquaintance mentioned that why did an album about the queer, black experience have to be weighty or somber? And I realized that’s where I had come at it wrong. I remember when I went to see Call Me By Your Name with a friend, he intimated to me that he didn’t really bother with gay movies or stories “because they always end up sad,” and I think for most of the queer stories told in media today, that is true. When thinking of queer stories, I’m hard pressed to think of one that does not end with a love unrequited or some party ending up with HIV. Here, Janelle opens with the pain of knowing she is different but then takes us on a journey of self-acceptance and celebration. And that’s where I want to focus on. Janelle asks us to love ourselves as she loves herself. Not without self-awareness but in understanding our self-worth. Back in the early 2010s there was a rash of self-acceptance songs from the major pop girls from Lady Gaga’s Born This Way to Kesha’s We R Who We R, and while those are fun, they ring a little hollow compared to the breadth of Janelle’s ode to love and life here. Honing in on a more specific sound as opposed to the massive buffet of genres her music usually devours, Janelle has created her most streamlined experience yet. The imagery is lovingly created and there is not a single moment in the 45-min emotion picture that I think isn’t gorgeous. But at the core of all this is Janelle.
A performing force, a spectacular singer and a wild visionary, Janelle has added to her own discography and changed how I think about my own queer experience. When once she sang “I’m trying to find my peace / I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me / and it hurts my heart / Lord have mercy ain’t it plain to see” in The ArchAndroid’s “Cold War,” Janelle now tells us “I’m not America’s nightmare, I’m the American Dream.”
Aaron Hansen is a 29 year old college student, enjoys playing video games and procrastinating on assignments. You can reach him with any complaints on Twitter or through a whisper on the wind.