Janelle Monáe and the road to ‘Dirty Computer’
In claiming the language of imagery, Black women are claiming power in experience.
by Victoria Collins
Though she was absent of critical acclaim in the very beginning, Janelle Monáe set in motion the narrative of a dystopian reality that would serve as the backdrop for a decade-long narrative of freedom, love, and acceptance with her 2003 self-released album, The Audition.
In 2007, she followed her debut album with an extended play (EP) which bore the name Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). With this work,
Monáe began constructing the narrative of a multipart saga focusing on the story of Monáe’s time-traveling alter ego, Cindi Mayweather.
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This saga of Monáe and Cindi found a critical ear in 2010 with the release of her first studio project, The Archandroid. The project takes the listener on an emotional and adrenaline-filled epic with tracks like “Dance or Die,” “Faster”, and “Tight Rope” as she tries to evade the “droid patrol”, agents of an oppressive regime of a dystopic future who threaten to stand in the way of her freedom and ability to love.
Monáe’s ability to build colorful and interesting narratives does not detract from her technical performance. Honest and heart-wrenching ballads like “Sir Greendown”, “Say You’ll Go”, and “BaBopBye Ya” showcased another dimension of her vocal talent and articulated the struggle of surviving when the freedom to live and love are under attack.
The Cindi Mayweather narrative was revived for the next installment, 2010’s The Electric Lady.
When a movement is suppressed, it does not die, it goes underground, and it is here in the underground called “Wondaland” that the audience gets acquainted with Monáe’s Electric Lady.
Who is she?
More than anything, she’s a symbol for pushing boundaries and breaking rules. Though forced into hiding, her spirit infects the fellow droids of Wondaland, compelling them to forge their own way underground.
Funky, edgy, and full of soul, The Electric Lady proved to be a groundbreaking sequel. Still on the run, the Electric Lady is a symbol of hope and unification. The world may be ending, but we must still dare to hope. This hope in the face of dystopia produces records like “Victory”, “Sally Ride”, and “What An Experience.”
Monáe spoke about her collaboration with Prince on the project. The late icon is even featured on the second track of the album, “Givin’ Em What You Love.” This collaboration on The Electric Lady would prove to be formative in the ways she approached her sound there after. Even in death, his influence seems to have left an indelible mark on Monáe as both a human and an artist.
With every successive body of work, Monáe has built upon her imaginative story, defying expectations with every move. Her emotionpicture, Dirty Computer, proves to be a feat of cinematic and narrative genius. Though Monae has always been one for a thought provoking and artfully crafted visual, her artistry and aesthetic come together masterfully in an exceptional way in this latest installment.
In Rolling Stone, Monáe told the world that she considers herself to be “a free-ass motherfucker.” A bold statement, and she has earned it. Dirty Computer punches in it’s defiance on tracks like “Django Jane”, “I Like That”, and “SCREWED” as she faces losing her memories to “the cleaning.”
“I don’t care/You’ve fucked the world up now/We’ll fuck it all back down.”
In light of Monáe’s own coming-out as pansexual, tracks like “Pynk” and “Make Me Feel” are layered with meaning and provide beautiful commentary on sexuality and gender.
“Deep inside, we’re all just pink.”
The visuals for “Pynk” sent the Tumblr-sphere into a frenzy as it validated suspicions of Monáe and Tessa Thompson’s romantic relationship. When asked directly in the past, both played it off with coy smiles. Perhaps part of the appeal was the air of mystery. Now confirmed, Thompson’s presence in Dirty Computer lends yet another dimension to Monáe’s saga.
Even as the bad guys seem to be closing in, Django Jane and her fellow “dirties” are still down to have a good time. Tracks like “Crazy, Classic Life” and “I Got the Juice” smack of resilience and freedom, while “So Afraid” provides a moment of emotional dissonance that, in its sincerity and earnestness, propels the project forward.
Prince’s influence is never more clearly heard than on the final track, “American.” It brings the story to a close with foot-tapping flair and infectious spirit as Jane and her friends escape “the cleaning” and flee into the light. It also makes an apt political statement about what it means to be an American.
“Love me baby, love me for who I amFallen 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/I’m American, I’m American, I’m American.”
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The resurgence of the visual in popular music breathes new life into what it means to be Black, a woman, and queer. Black women artists are curating an image for themselves and the culture as a whole that is inclusive and free of the constraint of certain expectations of Black women that have prevailed for decades.
In claiming the language of imagery, Black women are claiming power in experience. With Dirty Computer, Monáe walks us into her vision of the afro-future, imagining a world in which oppressed Black people can still improvise their survival and claim their autonomy from those that threaten their freedom, and her entire career has been one long narrative leading to this point.
Victoria is a recent NYC transplant and graduate student. Always armed with a notepad, pen, and satirical sense of humor, their writing focuses on their experiences as a queer person of color from the South transitioning and finding their way in the city.