Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer: An Experience Immersed In Musical Activism
Dirty Computer is an album defined by the celebration of free expression for the marginalized and oppressed. It is a collective experience spanning several different mediums that all encompass a singular vision of freedom. Sonically the album is ambitious and eclectic, lyrically it is unapologetic and assertive. Five years after sophomore album The Electric Lady, Janelle Monáe released her most personal and introspective project to date with Dirty Computer. Monáe notes that this particular project had to be developed and nurtured through her own experiences belonging to marginalised groups before its release in 2018. “I hadn’t gone through enough, I had not felt convicted enough, I had not cried enough, I had not loved enough…I needed to go through all that shit to get here.” Long time collaborators Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder described this project as being unique due to its personal nature. Wonder elaborated on this further noting, “Part of our role this time was to really push her in a different kind of way, so sometimes there are moments when there was a story she was reluctant to talk about… cause its so personal.”
Dirty Computer is a project that Janelle notes as being built on the utilitarian concept of community; she discussed the manifesto further in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy. “We accept you at the Church of Dirty Computer. You can continue to embrace those things about you that people deem are bugs and viruses that need to be fixed.” This is the running pathos throughout the album, an embracement of humanity in all its forms and a call for action in times of injustice and fear.
Monáe creates what is akin to a concept experience with an audio representation through the LP and a visual companion with the 48-minute emotion picture. “It is a continuation of what you hear in the speakers to the screen and it digs deeper into the world of Dirty Computer.” Janelle notes inspiration for the picture ranged from Prince’s semi-autobiographical Purple Rain to Michael Jackson’s fantastical Moonwalker film. Elements of both are evident in the emotion picture though Janelle and collaborators create their own distinctive universe using the metaphor of the Dirty Computer. The Cindi Mayweather narrative of the previous albums has been incorporated into the film, acting as a prequel to the storyline of the previous two albums and EP. Characters referenced in previous songs such as “Blueberry Mary” from Mushrooms and Roses receive a visual reference in the film as “Mary Apple.” The audio release is a concept album with Monáe noting that the LP is split into three chapters, The Reckoning, The Celebration and The Reclamation.
On the title track Dirty Computer, Monáe sings of being “broke inside” and searching to be fixed and accepted in a divided world behind luscious and robotic harmonies contributed by Beach Boys member Brian Wilson. Janelle discussed the genesis of the song and how the collaboration between her and Wilson resulted. “I was researching the Beach Boys, [and] I found out that the reason why their sound was so quiet, and their harmonies were blended but they were soft, was because they didn’t want to wake up their parents.” Wilson would be the first guest artist to collaborate on the album. The song presents like an introduction into the world and the tone of the project. As per the suite introductions on The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, Monáe noted the title track was always intended to be the opening song on the album adding, “you got to bring people into the mind of Dirty Computer, you know this is introspective. This is your walking into the psyche of me.”
Themes of social justice and the need for progression and equality run rampant throughout the album in response to external factors. Dirty Computer was born within a volatile political climate in America and the effects of this permeate throughout the album. Monáe stated in a recent interview that she hopes listeners feel “celebrated during the time where those in the position of power and making regulations say our very existence is dirty.”
On the opening of Crazy, Classic, Life, Monáe rejects the principles of the new administration and the need to be “fixed” by referring to the Declaration of Independence with a sample speech from preacher Dr Sean McMillan. The track is akin to an anthem, both sonically and lyrically, immersed in sci-fi inspired synths and drum patterns. Janelle discussed the meaning behind the song stating that it is “Talking about the right to the American dream, to the pursuit of happiness. Aren’t we all supposed to have it, do we all have it? No, that’s debatable.” On the liner notes, the song is said to be inspired by “the notion that freedom also comes from the right to be wrong, occasionally.”
The song highlights the need for free expression without bias for women including the freedom to make mistakes, and the double standard that comes with systemic gendered and racial oppression.
Take A Byte takes place during the ‘Reckoning’. Monáe elaborates on this idea further, noting that the first five songs on the album deal with the perception of the “Dirty Computers” by those who are in power. “This is how we see you. It’s when those who have historically been oppressors tell those who have been historically oppressed, This is who you are in society. This is how we look at you.” As referenced in the liner notes, the song was inspired by fictional characters who all share traits and attributes that challenge the norm of traditional patriarchy. Eve rebelled by taking the apple, Queen of Sheba ruled in a way that even Kings envied; Scheherazade defied the king by using intellect to spare her life. All women are figures of desire, notoriety and dared to defy authority. In doing so, they were perceived as seductive but also forbidden. Take A Byte candidly plays with these perceptions relating them to the central concept of Dirty Computer. Sonically Take A Byte has an almost futuristic post-disco sound with wonky bass and prominent percussion propelling the album forward with eclectic funk.
Jane’s Dream acts as an interlude bridging Take A Byte with the sonic explosion of the succeeding track. An 18 second instrumental of strumming guitar engulfed with swirling synthesizers, Monáe notes the inspiration for the song as “my terrifying nightmare about a near future America full of abductions and secret detention centers oddly like our own.”
A pronounced guitar line with hand claps and vibrant synths propel side 2 of the record on the Zoë Kravitz collaboration Screwed. Monáe notes that her intention with the track was to “create something that was up tempo, upbeat, that was highlighting what we were experiencing, what we were feeling.” There is a significant contrast between the playful composition of the song and the dark lyrical content. Janelle sings of hearing “bombs exploding” and “sirens calling” over distant guitar riffs and vibrant synths. The subjects’ dance and rock in the face of potential destruction and oblivion. She notes in the liner notes of the album that the song was inspired by the “dismal morning” of post Election Day in 2016. She elaborates further, “It talks about while we’re celebrating, having parties there is a world where there are families being broken apart.” The art of protest and in particular the faces of those who march and stand up for rights formed the central inspiration for the song. Quite simply, the rhetoric of the track is that if those in power attempt to dismantle social progress, the truly bold will be there to fix it.
Django Jane is a call to action, but also an assertive emotional and intellectual response to the state of women’s rights. Sonically sparse, the vocals are the focal point of the song, important due to the nature of the lyrics. Monáe has described the record as being written “from a deeply personal space.” She further elaborates on the writing process of the song in an interview with Hot 97 noting, “When I was recording Django Jane in particular, leaving the studio I was so upset about where woman’s rights are right now.” She further describes “feeling like the representation of black women and the things that have happened to us…it was difficult to record that song.” Janelle sings of giving the “vagina a monologue” and the collective power of “black girl magic.” Acting as a further extension of the track Ghetto Woman from sophomore album The Electric Lady, Django Jane is a turning point thematically in terms of both the sonic tone and configuration on the album as it launches the ‘Celebration’ segment. Monáe noted further, “Django Jane is about standing firm in my beliefs as a woman and standing up for women and protecting women and celebrating women.” As per the corresponding scene in the emotion picture, Django Jane is a musical reckoning and a dream for complete equality in the near future, but also a reminder of the collective power of black women.
On the first side of the album Monáe expresses her thoughts, feelings about living in a dystopian authoritative society identifying as a free thinking woman. Pynk is both an extension and a companion to Django Jane. Both songs illustrate the diversity, sensuality and the collective power of women united. Janelle noted the song as being “celebratory” stating, “there’s lots of symbolism and mysticism in it (Pynk) and my love for us and for black girl magic and for those that are often times marginalised.” Sonically the song is sparse with floating synths over finger snaps and distant guitar. Another collaboration on the album, she discussed the inclusion of Grimes on the track in an interview with Apple Beats, “I played her all the songs on the project and I didn’t tell her which one I wanted her to get on, I let her pick and I knew which one she’d pick.” Grimes would contribute unique harmonies complimenting the sensual and slow burn tone of the song. The video to Pynk has arguably garnered the most attention for its vibrant and eclectic visual imagery. Starring Monáe and Tessa Thompson, the short film is a filmic representation of the message of the track, “you saw how powerful we are when we are together and when we are aligned. It is just a visual of that.” Monáe notes.
Coinciding with the release of Dirty Computer Monáe was featured on a cover story of Rolling Stone where she came out as pansexual proclaiming, “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”
Make Me Feel is an exploration of psychical desire and emotional expression in a space of discarded inhibition and complete freedom. Sonically this is represented in the playful sound of Prince like synths and sparse funk. Janelle’s vocals are playful, seductive and of un-adulterated joy. She discussed the basis for the meaning of the track noting, “The inspiration was just thinking of how some people can feel like they need to change things about themselves. You know, who they love, or how they dance, or they may not fit in necessarily. But when they hear ‘Make Me Feel,’ my hope is that they feel seen, that they feel heard, that all the free spirited, wanna-have-fun beings, who feel like they don’t have room to do that, feel empowered to love themselves and dance like nobody’s watching.”
I Got The Juice continues Monáe’s celebration of the female form with Pharrell Williams contributing background vocals and a rap during the bridge. Janelle further discussed his inclusion on the song in a Billboard interview. “When he heard what my album was going to be about he said, “Let me know what I can do.” I called him for I Got The Juice so he could show his presence as an ally to women. I think it’s important that men and women work together to uplift women and fight for women’s rights, which are human rights.”
I Like That celebrates diversity and appreciation for women regardless of their socio-economic status or the conceived notions of what it is to be attractive to society. In the bridge of the song Monáe recollects an experience in high school in which she was deemed unattractive because of her defiance of complying with perceived ideas of beauty by removing her perm. “Its about when women in particular black women decide that we want to cut our relaxers off and we want to have our natural hair and embrace us.” Regardless of anyone’s perception, she is aware of her own worth being “crazy, sexy and cool.” A sly wink and reference to TLC’s classic 1994 album of the same name. The song is an internal and introspective battle to define and accept your own natural beauty regardless of the opinions of others. Janelle further discussed the writing of the song stating, “I asked myself what is my definition of beauty, how am I going to make sure that my self esteem is intact despite what people think about me?” While compositionally the song is sparse, warm and soulful harmonies breeze throughout the chorus and bridge creating an intimate and gospel feel contrasting with the trap influenced drum programming.
A soundscape of scaling strings and crashing waves follow in what is arguably the most cinematic sounding song on the album. Don’t Judge Me is a song consumed in vulnerability and companionship and introduces the final chapter of ‘Reclamation’ to the listener. Monáe uses personification with the sound of crashing waves to express the feeling of dropping figurative barriers in order to gain true intimacy. In the album liner notes the inspiration of the song is noted as being “the moment you text something naughty and forbidden to them and the three replying dots to linger forever while you wait for the answer.”
Sonically the strings lend a theatrical quality to the song while the acoustic guitar brings an intimate dimension to the composition. Janelle notes that the string arrangements were a product of collaboration between Nate Wonder and Wynee of Twin Shadows. The sensually atmospheric arrangement is particularly evident during the beach scene in the Dirty Computer emotion picture with the protagonists showing affection on the sand. Monáe found particular love for these string revealing, “I love the beach scene the music in particular on the beach scene how it compliments these three people who love each other and want to create a place that’s rooted in love.“
Dirty Computer is an album of rebellion in an age of adversity and conflict. While anger is the most immediate and arguably natural reaction to injustice, love is a central motif throughout the album as Monáe notes the project as being “rooted in love.” Love is an internal and external concept with both being central throughout the album and this is further evident in Stevie Wonder’s contribution on the interlude Stevie’s Dream. The genesis of the interlude took place during a dinner conversation between Wonder and Monáe. She notes asking Wonder what it was like “to lose your heroes, to lose your friends, what was It like during this time?” Stevie’s Dream was birthed from this conversation. Monáe was instructed by Wonder to record his message, which was ultimately featured on the album.
“Don’t let your expressions, even of anger, be confused or misconstrued. Turn them into words of expression that can be understood by using words of love.”
Janelle noted in an interview with Hypebeast that while it may be hard to love in the face of adversity and conflict, it was ultimately the right direction for the project. “Because it’s easy for me to hate. It’s easy for us to hate. It’s easy for us to say, I hate these people. They can have this country. It was a personal challenge for me to figure out where I can put my energy. And that was using love.” Configured as the twelfth track on the album during the “Reclamation” period of the record, the song is a reminder of the need for love to be central as a catalyst for change and a necessary component of open dialogue and progression. Wonder’s wise words are uttered over guitar and synths and remind listeners of this fundamental requirement for social progress and discourse.
The genesis of So Afraid dates back to as early as October 2015, Monáe expresses in an episode of Song Exploder how the basic outline of the song came to her on a trip to the dentist. Describing the song as being “built on introspection”, She discussed the track as being about “asking myself questions around my fears, around my anxieties and what does it feel like to be afraid of many things.” Sonically Janelle’s vocals are the focal point with the track beginning with pronounced vocals and Nate Wonder on guitar. It is a song of slow-build with layers of instrumentation being strategically added with each verse and chorus, consummating into an eruption of harmony and sound. Spacey synthesizers and tribal percussion with luscious folk-like background harmonies propel the song with the change in key on the final chorus acting as a sort of cathartic explosion. Monáe notes the creation of the song musically adding, “whenever I am building I song I like to start with guitar or piano because I thinking that great songs are able to played with just the minimal instrumentation and it still resonate with you.”
The song recalls musical motifs present in Monae’s previous work with the folk like background harmonies reminiscent of 57821 from The ArchAndroid and sci-fi sounding synths; this was intentional as Monáe notes they “bring this sense of eeriness to the song, a sense of futurism.”
The closing song on the album Americans takes the universal scope of the Dirty Computer project and magnifies it directly into the political and social landscape of the United States. Monáe touches on injustices ranging from the gender pay gap to lack of gun reform, “Its not saying I live in America we are so perfect, its actually highlighting the disappointing things, the hateful things that the abusers of power are doing to our communities.” The sense of cynicism throughout the song is matched with an assurance of hope and a sense of prevail as McMillan reprises his role in the bridge, proclaiming that America does not belong to the Dirty Computers until marginalised groups are treated as equal and the balance of power is restored. Interestingly Janelle noted the original intention of the song was quite different to the finished product, “I had a first draft of it and it was going to be called Southern Man and it came from the perspective of what it meant to be this white male in the south and him saying this is my America.” She decided instead to take a different approach, favouring a universal representation of the melting pot that is America, “What I settled on was something that highlighted different characteristic about Americans and it showed we were all fighting for our voices to be heard.”
Sonically the song exudes Prince’s reminiscent 80’s drum machines combined with an infectious bass line and triumphant harmonies, closing the album with an optimistic tone.
Dirty Computer is not simply a concept album; it is an auditory and visual experience immersed in musical activism. The album is introspective yet universal, speaks to particular groups yet is also inclusive. It is also an album of social commentary and personal reflection and exploration. Through continuing to represent those that are marginalised within society, with each listen Dirty Computer is a powerful tool of rebellion, validation and celebration. In the vein of fellow masterpieces What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Monáe has curated an album that delves in to both the political and the personal and in doing so encourages all individuals to be their own “free-ass motherfucker.”
“I know that there is power to seeing people in action, just seeing an artist who does have messaging of empowerment. If you wanna become an activist, being able to see that is being able to be that. It’s like the revolution is being televised” — Janelle Monáe.
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Quotes Extracted from Interviews with:
Red bull Music Academy
The Breakfast Club