“Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?” Janelle Monáe asked on her sputtering, funky 2013 single “Q. U. E. E. N.” Her defiance was puzzling, because the answer, for most of her listeners, would have been a resounding “no.” Around the time Monáe released her second full-length album, The Electric Lady, a kind of performative, yeah-we-get-it-already “freakiness” was raging through pop music’s A-list. Twerking was the scientific opposite of peculiar in 2013, the unholy year of “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus at the VMAs. In comparison with the sexually forthright pop songs that dominated the radio that year, Janelle Monáe’s freak-flag anthem sounded a little tame—or perhaps just a little vague in exactly what it was trying to communicate. “Is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?” Monáe asked, with what could have been a suggestive nod toward same-gender attraction, or just as easily a chaste admiration of another girl’s style. But there was something anxious about the song’s repeated litany of questions—am I a freak for dancing ’round?—and a palpable apprehension about the listener’s imagined disapproval. It’s a tension that coursed through a lot of Janelle Monáe’s earlier music: You could feel her holding back in these songs that purported to be about the ecstasy of letting go.
At least before the release of her new album Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe had a habit of saying in five words what she could have said in one. “Q. U. E. E. N.” apparently stood for “Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated, Negroid,” but in a Rolling Stone cover story published last week—in which the 32-year-old identified herself as pansexual (or perhaps more to the point, a “free-ass motherfucker”)—she admitted that the working title of the song was “Q.U.E.E.R.” If you listen closely, noted the writer Brittany Spanos, “you can still hear the word on the track’s background harmonies.” I’d never noticed it before, but listening to the song now, I can’t unhear it, any of it—that whispered declaration, the support of the backing vocalists that sing it together in the solidarity of harmony, and the pain of the late compromise to change it to a more benign word and scrub the song clean.
Midway through “I Like That,” the 10th song on the revelatory Dirty Computer, the curtains part and Monáe delivers a soliloquy in plainspoken, André 3000–esque free verse:
I remember when you called me weird
We was in math class, third row
I was sitting by you
Right before Mr. Ammond’s class
Cuz my mama couldn’t afford new J’s, Polo
Thrift-store thrift clothes, that was all I knew
Do you remember?
I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off
And you rated me a 6
I was like, damn
But even back then, with the tears in my eyes
I always knew I was the shit
A lot of the songs on Monáe’s earlier records take the scenic route, but that verse cuts a direct course—it’s an arrow to the heart. There’s another piercing verse at the end of the second track, “Crazy, Classic, Life,” which finds Monáe charting the diverging paths of two rebellious young Americans, one a black girl and the other a “white boy in his sandals.” “Me and you was friends, but to them, we the opposite,” she raps. “The same mistake, I’m in jail, you on top of shit / You living life while I’m walking around moppin’ shit / Tech kid, backpack, no, you a college kid.” That is the triumph of Dirty Computer, at its best: a deft ability to spin vivid personal stories into looming structural critiques of American society—most of which you can actually dance to. If it were an easy feat, plenty more people would be doing it right now.
As impressive as its opening stretch is, Dirty Computer really picks up steam toward the end with the sultry “Don’t Judge Me,” the soul-searching “So Afraid,” and the triumphant closing track “Americans.” It’s a sweaty, cathartic finale that evokes some of the more upbeat songs on Purple Rain, cut through with a defiant political message: “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land,” Monáe sings. “I’m not crazy baby, no, I’m American.”
Dirty Computer often has the smeary feeling of having been painted in watercolors that have not yet dried. That is not to say that it comes off as casual or hastily done: It’s as blueprinted and meticulously attuned to detail as anything Monáe has ever released, and it rarely sounds less than immaculate. (The shimmering synths on “Make Me Feel”! The bottle-rocket guitar riffs on “Americans”!) But, in contrast with her earlier records, Dirty Computer is unafraid to make a bit of a mess. It flows: Songs like the peppy “Screwed” and the dexterous “Django Jane” pour into one another without discernible boundaries. The elegiac harmonies on the opening title track—featuring none other than Brian Wilson—evoke the wispy gradient of a late-summer sunset. The form is on nodding terms with its content. On several levels, Dirty Computer is a pop symphony of fluidity.
For all its ambition, Dirty Computer has few misfires. One of the least successful songs, though, is the too-on-the-nose “Screwed,” an electric-bright pop anthem that tries to shrug off oppression and celebrate free love at the same time, though it can’t quite pull off all that heavy lifting. (It’s further dragged down by the faux profundity of a head-scratching rap: “See, if everything is sex / Except sex / Which is power / You know power is just sex.” Sure.)
But Dirty Computer’s main bug is how tethered it feels to the idea of the concept album. The title, too, is a bit of a clunky conceit, and given the personal, flesh-and-blood revelations of many of its songs, the insistence on telling a metaphor-laden sci-fi story feels like a habitual holdover from the old Janelle, who can still get a little too caught up in her head. She hasn’t entirely rebooted. And while the sumptuous 48-minute “emotion picture” that accompanies the album is visually dazzling and largely enjoyable—a kind of The Handmaid’s Tale–meets–The Warriors story that feels equally inspired by Purple Rain and Lemonade—it does feel a little too caught up in the machinations of its (rather cliché) plot. Whenever Monáe gets too stuck on the details of the story she’s telling, she can lose that power to make us feel.
When Monáe broke through with her 2010 epic The ArchAndroid, she announced herself as someone who had done her homework. She had all the right collaborators, reference points, and sense of history, but that also gave her music a studied quality that made it feel a little stiff. Over time, she’s become more nimble, able to do more with less. Monáe’s long journey toward an album as vulnerable and moving as Dirty Computer reminds me of something Nina Simone once said when she finally gave herself over to jazz: “I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about,” she reflected. “Now [I] was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.”
In the five years between The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer, Monáe made an impressive turn as an actress. In an auspicious debut year, she starred in two of 2016’s most celebrated films: Moonlight (a tender queer love story about long-delayed self-acceptance) and Hidden Figures (a needed biopic illuminating the unsung achievements of a group of marginalized women, and a gentle critique of a society that didn’t teach us all their names sooner). Acting seems to have had a galvanizing effect on Monáe’s music. It is not hard to hear these movie’s themes echoed on Dirty Computer; fiction is often a gateway for personal truth, and perhaps the process of telling these cinematic stories awoke something buried in Monáe’s own psyche. But becoming known as an actress—probably better known than she is as a musician, at this point—also seems to have alleviated a pressure on her music to be conventionally “successful” in the pop world and to be Monáe’s only channel of creativity. Dirty Computer will probably not spawn huge radio hits, but that hardly makes it feel like a failure. If anything, it makes it feel like a panoramic alternate universe, an underground haven where radical ideas can be explored freely without worrying how they will land or sell.
Monáe’s past reticence in talking about her sexuality could, at times, be frustrating: How could she could instruct her fans to embrace freedom, love, and sexual liberation if she was not entirely clear about what those things meant to her? Dirty Computer, though, makes the slight stiffness and opacity of her earlier records take on a more poignant meaning in hindsight. “I don’t always live [my songs], I don’t,” Monáe admitted in a recent New York Times Magazine profile. “And I’m learning more and more to live them, to make myself live them.” Pop music too often mandates that young women present a legible, unchanging, completely figured-out conception of their sexualities from the first bar of their debut single. And yet when you take Monáe’s entire arc into account, there is something genuine and all-too rare about the figure she cuts in the world: a late bloomer who was not ready to tell us everything from the jump, because she might not have had it all figured out herself. Even when it stumbles, Dirty Computer is an intimate achievement: It finds, finally, Janelle Monáe asserting that perfection is not as important as freedom.