It seemed entirely possible that any new music from Janelle Monáe would be a long time coming. Although she had already started the process of developing her third studio album when she stepped into the job of big-time movie actress, the tremendous success she enjoyed as a cast member of 2016 awards season titans Moonlight and Hidden Figures carried her to a whole new level of fame. That ascendency was further enhanced by Monáe’s grand sense of style naturally aligning with the fervent need for glamour, all but guaranteeing she’d become a red carpet stunner. Surely the atrophying music industry had to look a little less appealing from the vantage point of newly shining stardom.
Luckily, Monáe decided she had to tend to her unfinished business. It’s unclear if Dirty Computer would have followed the same rough trajectory without Monáe’s forays down other artistic avenues, but it certainly crackles like the product of a creator whose had their fortitude and confidence bolstered by a few spare triumphs. Where her other two fine albums — ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady — were constructs build around the frame of entertaining but distancing science fiction conceits, Dirty Computer reverberates with the seismic tumult of blazing personal revelation and fearless truths. Monáe has conceded the songs are freer expressions of self than she’s allowed before, but that’s clear without the explication. It feels like everything Monáe is — spiritually, politically, emotionally, sexually — is laced through the soulful grooves and snapping lyrics.
The flashing headlines sparked to existence by the album — and its consistently striking accompanying videos — are preoccupied with the hints of revelation associated with Monáe’s romantic attractions. And the album does indeed sometimes seem as if came to life after Monáe pushed vast skies of fluttering bisexual lighting through some magical reverse prism that transformed it all into vivid pop music. And Monáe is thrillingly upfront — even brash — about deploying delightfully salacious language against her fulsome neo soul.
On “I Got the Juice,” Monáe sings, “Got juice for all my lovers/ Got juice for all my wives/ My juice is my religion/ Got juice between my thighs.” It’s not exactly coy, but Monáe’s intriguing gift across Dirty Computer is making all the randy come ons play like sweetly innocent seductions, a flirty magic act that was previously mastered by Janet Jackson. The trick is present within the glorious flow of “Take a Byte,” the gorgeous fragility of “Pynk” (featuring a guest appearance by Grimes, a splendid returned favor), and across the whole album, really. Monáe is so overtly powerful in her evocations of sexuality that she’s able to position them as a particularly joyful version of political defiance. “You fuck the world up now/ We’ll fuck it all back down,” she proclaims in “Screwed,” as a rubbery Prince-like guitar line slips in and out.
The influence of the purple-hued icon is also ever-present on Dirty Computer. According to Monáe, Prince helped her out during the early stages of the album’s creation, and at times the influence is so evident he may as well have his spectral fingers interlaced with hers at the base of an especially fabulous torch. Single “Make Me Feel” almost sounds as though it was pulled whole out of Prince’s fabled vault, even as it inevitably calls to mind one of Michael Jackson’s finest hits. Monáe isn’t slavish to Prince’s sound, though. She incorporates what she’s learned from her forebear and makes it her own, just as she does with Stevie Wonder on the intricate and lovely “Stevie’s Dream,” which features its namesake providing “oratory blessings.” There even seems to be a sly reference to TLC on the airy R&B track “I Like That,” when Monáe sings, “‘Cause I’m crazy and I’m sexy and I’m cool/ Little rough around the edges but I keep it smooth.”
Monáe pulls all of these ricocheting pieces together on the album closer, “Americans.” Soaring and punchy at once, the song is a scathing history lesson, a statement of belief, and an act of defiance in the face of grotesque fools who want to eradicate the hard-earned progress toward a valuing of all people: “Love me baby, love me for who I am/ Fallen angels singing, ‘Clap your hands’/ Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land/ I’m not crazy, baby, naw/ I’m American.” It’s the spirited anthem to an uncompromising resistance that will not give anything back, no matter how much clawing and whining there is from those who’ve become accustomed to unearned privilege. Hold speakers aloft and blare “The Americans” from the rooftops.
If Monáe has moved away from the safety of casting her eyes to fanciful, robotic futures, it’s in part because the here and now needs her voice. Monáe has made terrific music before, but she’s shifted to a different plane. Dirty Computer is vital.