Repeat after her: Janelle Monáe is a dirty computer, and she is not ready to be cleaned.
Five years after Electric Lady, the genre-defying star dropped both a new album and an accompanying 46-minute “emotion picture” late Thursday night to tell its story — or, more accurately, her own.
Dirty Computer tells the story of “Jane 57821” (Monáe), a defiant free spirit who lives in a near-future dystopia and takes joy in celebrating herself, her love for fellow rebel Zen (Tessa Thompson), and the queer black community that accepts them both. But when we meet her, she’s strapped to a chair in a stark facility, where a disembodied voice tells her she’s “a dirty computer” due for a cleaning.
Jane, however, disagrees.
Throughout Dirty Computer, we see Jane struggle to maintain her identity as two (white guy) lab technicians watch and wipe her most precious memories. We see glimpses of her and Zen falling in love. We see Jane finding power in herself and the beautiful weirdos she surrounds herself with. We see all these “dirty computers” celebrating the hope and joy of just being themselves — and then we see them fade away.
Every song on the album but one provides the soundtrack for these memories. (The lone outlier, “Take a Byte,” plays as Jane is hung upside down in Technicolor shibari-style ropes, seemingly taunting her captors with a wink.)
It also must be said that every song on the album is a stone-cold jam, combining R&B (“Don’t Judge Me”) with funk (“Make Me Feel”) with rap (“Django Jane”) with pop (“Screwed”) in a way that is all Monáe’s own. (But you wouldn’t be wrong to hear more than a little Prince in Dirty Computer’s slick guitar riffs, particularly on “Americans”; the late legend was one of Monáe’s mentors, after all.)
Dirty Computer is, by Monáe’s own admission, her most personal work to date. For her first couple of albums, she was inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis to adopt an alternate “archandroid” persona named Cindi Mayweather. At the time, she said Cindi was her way of personifying what it means to be an “other” and even to act as a “mediator” between worlds. Now, as she recently told Rolling Stone, she recognizes that Cindi was partly a way to deal with “the fear of being judged.”
“All I saw was that I was supposed to look a certain way coming into this industry,” Monáe said. “I felt like I [didn’t] look like a stereotypical black female artist.”
With Dirty Computer, Monáe is declaring herself as herself. That means, as she also revealed to Rolling Stone for the first time, declaring herself a “free ass motherfucker” who is attracted to men, women, and everyone in between.
In that respect, it’s unsurprising that much of this album — which leans on pure pop more than any of her others — feels lighter than its predecessors. Listening to songs like “Crazy, Classic, Life” and “Pynk” feels exactly how she depicts them in the videos: like you’re driving down a highway with the top down, blasting triumph for everyone to hear. In Dirty Computer, finding the fun in being a queer, black “dirty computer” is a beautiful, revolutionary act.
So every time Dirty Computer’s emotion picture cuts from the pure transgressive joy of queer black crowds dancing to the music to Jane getting those memories wiped in that sterile facility, it’s stark, horrifying — and so pointed it could draw blood.
It’s not a coincidence that every single song on this album is united by one overtly political sentiment: The powers that be think anyone staging a rebellion — sexual, political, or otherwise — is a “dirty computer” that needs fixing to fit in with their bland, blank image of personhood. As Monáe told Rolling Stone, she herself used to believe she had “a computer virus” that needed to be purged in order for her to succeed.
And though she had become more comfortable with herself, the 2016 election scared her to her core. “I felt like if I wake up tomorrow,” she said, “are people going to feel they have the right to just, like, kill me now?”
Neither she nor Dirty Computer pretends to have any solid answer to that question. But the album nonetheless declares without reservation that Monáe’s now come to believe that if being “clean” means losing everything about that makes a person unique, then fuck that.
As Jane — but really, Janelle — sings on “I Like That”:
I’m always left of center, and that’s right where I belong
I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs
And I like that.
Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture is currently available to stream on YouTube.