When Donald Trump got elected in November 2016, many searching for a silver lining predicted we could look forward to some amazing art inspired by this administration if nothing else. It felt like an uneven exchange to me at the time, from deep in my grief. But some amazing art – a middle finger to the President and his administration – has indeed materialised, and Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer, out now, is among the best of it.
Monáe uses this album to reject all of the sexism, racism, and homophobia that has resurfaced in Trump's America, but she also uses it to explore and unmask herself in a completely new way. She taps into something a lot of people feel: how the damage from bigotry and oppression has moved her to embrace the things she felt she had to hide about herself. Where once Monáe wore gender-ambiguous clothes in a palette of white and black, she now sings about her pussy, both with reverence and the threat that it grabs back. She speaks out about the Black experience, from the culture to her afro to Black girl magic, and doesn't give a shit about couching her experience in abstract terms the establishment could understand.
Monáe has found freedom in a time of resistance; peeling back the ugly face on every of -ism has allowed her to flourish. I suspect that is, in part, because she (and so many of us) no longer have to feel like we're crazy. Monáe can now send a hearty "fuck you" to every oppressor, and transform her journey to self-acceptance into art. What makes Monáe's message so celebratory, however, is all the joy and love it's couched in. She is bringing the kind of optimism we all need right now.
Layered into the personal is a Black Mirror-esque layer that feels uncomfortably real. She doesn't shy away from exploring the pervasive, sometimes destructive ways technology drives and complicates our lives, our culture and our relationships.
Musically, this album is the work of a badass. To say she's even at the height of her creative powers at this masterful level– who knows what she'll pull off next? – would be presumptuous. Anyone who opens their album with a fragment of a track done with actual musical genius Brian Wilson is setting the bar high, and she clears it with every new idea she presents.
There has been a lot of talk about her carrying on the work of her mentor Prince with this LP. That holds true, but in very distinct places. She uses a bass line that sounds like one of his in "Take a Byte," as well as a vocal arrangement that sounds like something he would write for a woman artist. The intro to "Screwed" is a very Prince-esque guitar lick. "Make Me Feel" straight up lifts Prince's '80s vibe in every way, and could be the spiritual child of "Kiss." The point is: Monáe uses these callbacks to his aesthetic in very pointed ways and quite specifically as an homage. It doesn't overshadow her own style or infiltrate the entire work. There is a lot of Monáe on display here.
It is no small thing to take a personal experience and make it into a genuine political statement; Monáe does that brilliantly, in a way only she could, on Dirty Computer. It's one part the party at the end of the world, and one part being the change you want to see in the world – and the final result is inspired, and inspiring.
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