Dirty Computer is a joy to listen to. Janelle Monáe’s latest album brims with positivity, open-mindedness, and love. Part protest for sure, but part celebration too. At its best, this is the level of pop music that similar artists should aspire to reach: harmonically lush, deliberately structured, and wonderfully diverse. Better still, it carries a crucial message that promotes freedom and liberation. Think of it as pop’s version of To Pimp a Butterfly, but not quite as brilliant. As enjoyable as Dirty Computer is, it’s far from perfect, and some of the trap-tinged beats will likely sound redundant in a few years. The flaws are minute in comparison to the extreme and euphoric highs, however, and when all is said and done, this is likely the record that makes Janelle Monáe a superstar.
Dirty’s Computer’s opening half hour is simply fabulous. “Crazy, Classic, Life” glows with infectious positivity, setting a heartening tone that the album largely retains throughout. “Screwed” is as joyous as it is brash, and sports one of the catchiest hooks of the year. “Make Me Feel” is possibly the best of the bunch, essentially Monáe’s homage to Prince’s “Kiss”. This song, along with many others, plays with sexuality and passion in an encouraging, progressive manner, and while it’s not always eloquently spoken on Monáe’s behalf, it’s wonderfully pleasing to experience such exultance. “I Got the Juice” is a slight misstep, perhaps the first time on the album that Monáe favours style over substance. Fortunately, this is a rarity.
“Don’t Judge Me” stands as one of Dirty Computer’s most unique tracks: a romantic, dreamy slow-jam trickled with dazzling samples and gorgeous strings. A ’90s R&B throwback on the surface, but one that delves into both blues and jazz. These sorts of fusions are heard throughout the record, and the sheer variety that Dirty Computer offers is something that not only rivals, but also surpasses Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I’m not sure it’s quite as accomplished as Lorde’s Melodrama, but it’s certainly just as fun. Monáe’s message is one to recognise and to act accordingly. Though there are some clumsy lyrical mishaps, it doesn’t lessen the impact of Dirty Computer’s principals. This will likely go down as one of 2018’s finest artistic achievements. Pop has rarely sounded so stylish, nor has it sounded so diverse.8 10
Favourite tracks // Make Me Feel
Don’t Judge Me
Crazy, Classic, Life
I struggle to find words when it comes to discussing this album. Each time I feel as though I’m about to make a breakthrough, the amorphous Dirty Computer shape-shifts in such a way that I feel taken aback, frustrated that I don’t quite understand. Feeling confused by my stance on an album isn’t particularly unusual, but in this instance I feel that the confusion damages my experience.
Taking the album at face value is challenging. The majority of its components are neither ordinary nor overtly weird, impossible to ignore. The opening tracks feel like siren calls, hypnotising you to follow nose-first into whatever Janelle Monáe has up her sleeve. Texturally the scene is set immediately; a tropical Anderson.Paak-esque smoothness that is consistently evocative of fruit juice — until Pharrell starts talking about urine, that is. It isn’t saccharine, as I would expect, and this trait is present from the lyricism through to each layer of production. Everything feels punchy, vibrant, and alive, conjuring images of sunny climes and happy, listless free-spirits dancing with cocktails in hand.
The overarching theme of sexuality is pronounced in ways that are not nearly as trite as they deserve to be: sexualising easily recognisable flavours, comparing a sexual screwing to the screwing of having a bomb dropped on your head. Sex bombs, that is, I guess. Monáe frequently plays with words like this, jumping from meaning to meaning without pausing for a breath. When it works it’s wonderful, and it’s painful when it doesn’t. “Django Jane” is the worst offender, throwing out a maelstrom of half-baked ideas that’s ultimately more superficial than it seems.
This superficiality suddenly appears stark following “Django Jane”, and the originality of the album’s ideas wears alarmingly thin. Another Bowie-inspired guitar section, another ’80s synth, another vocal harmony in the style of a power ballad — none of the songs on this album would be out of place if they were to play as the credits roll on The Breakfast Club. This sharing of ideas means the album is cohesive, texturally and sonically sound across the board, but individual tracks feel nondescript and anonymous. Hooks evaporate from memory from track to track, and by the half-hour mark I’m more than ready for it to end. Try as I might, I can’t find my way into the album’s world of revelry, abandon, and endless fruitiness.6 10
Favourite tracks // Take a Byte
Make Me Feel
I’ve struggled to come to a conclusion on Dirty Computer. While pop music can often remain lightweight and largely effectless, Janelle Monáe has managed to thread the needle of pop with some depth. The lead singles, “I Like That” and “Make Me Feel”, still remain some of my favourite moments on this album, but there’s a good amount of variety to be found elsewhere too. And while “Make Me Feel” leaves me pining for Prince’s “Kiss” more often than not, it is still a great pop track in its own right. There’s a lot of heavy Prince-isms to be found throughout the tracklist too and in most cases it benefits from the comparison, adding enough originality to not be derivative. My struggle is in the lasting memories I take away from the album, and there aren’t a huge number of them. While the singles have some staying power, I found it hard to pick favourite tracks despite the variety of influences and collaborators involved in the album. This is compounded a little further by the tracklist feeling a little top heavy, with the closer assuredly being my least favourite track on the album due to its cheese factor, which fortunately doesn’t blight the rest of the album. On the other hand, while I’m listening to Dirty Computer, I enjoy the hell out of it. “Crazy, Classic, Life” and “Screwed” are both standout tracks that create a great atmosphere and Pharrell Williams’ feature on “I Got The Juice” is a welcome addition. The first half is definitely a very solid half hour of music and there’s certainly nothing that will bore you here. To top it off, this is probably one of the better releases of this year thus far and that should count for something. I’ll definitely be returning to this in parts, but I’m still unsure about its longevity as an album.7 10
Favourite tracks // I Like That
Make Me Feel