Monday, April 30, 2018

album review: 'dirty computer' by janelle monae

I remember referencing Afrofuturism in brief while talking about Janelle Monae's past two records, the underlying Cindi Mayweather stories that have served as a time travelling narrative undercurrent to her stories, taking the tropes and aesthetics of 50s and 60s sci-fi and fusing it with modern language, taking the textures of R&B and soul of the 70s and 80s and bringing them into a swirling, neon genre fusion with rock and modern R&B, and its core was the swirling, magnetic charisma of Janelle Monae...

And there's a part of me that feels I owe her an apology. Now to some of you that might seem confusing - I've been openly a fan for years ever since her guest appearance on Idlewild, I'd put both The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady on year-end lists, I wouldn't hesitate to put her on a list of one of the most defiantly unique and potent artists of the 2010s both in terms of raw talent and experimentation and that's even before you consider how she hasn't compromised her pop sensibility. And yet going back to my review of The Electric Lady five years ago, just when I was starting out... there's a part of me not proud of it, primarily because of how I treated the underlying metaphors and themes at the core of the work. Not that I didn't grasp it - the queer black femininity at its core was always apparent and Janelle Monae did a wonderful job exploring its nuances through the larger metaphors of her story - but I feel the language I chose was minimizing, especially given how deeply personal said narrative turned out to be. For me it was more paying attention to the mechanics of the story, looking for a weightier external payoff to the narrative rather than realizing the true thematic and emotional arc was internal... and while some of that could be explained due to the theatrical artificiality of the narrative, I should have realized the inward shift of the metaphor and presentation was likely far more representative of what explorations of queer black femininity and sexuality are. 

Fast forward to 2018 and it should surprise nobody that so much of the coded theatricality has slipped away: the institutional pressures have redoubled both internal and external strain, and flagrant urgency becomes a necessity. More than that, Janelle Monae has only grown into a more assured and confident artist, both from her forays into acting or even her steps into mainstream R&B with The Eephus EP in 2015 - yes, I personally preferred more of the fantastical sci-fi aesthetic and genre blending, but raw charisma can compensate for a lot. And thus for Dirty Computer, there was a part of me that knew this record wouldn't quite be the same sort of Afrofuturist affair as her previous work - especially with the lead-off singles, it looked to be, for lack of better words, more conventional and accessible. Granted, she still released an entire short film to flesh out the greater themes of the record that was very much linked to her conceptual framework, but we're here to focus on the album itself - so how is it?

So I want to establish a few things before we get into this review proper. If you're expecting Dirty Computer to continue the Cindi Mayweather narrative, you're not going to get that - and conversely, if you're expecting the extended 'album movie' Janelle Monae released alongside this record to further expand the concept... if anything it adds more texture and character to the details, the record definitely can stand on its own. And if you've been hearing that this is easily Janelle Monae's most accessible record to date and yet doesn't quite have the same indelibly unique flair that made The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady so compelling... well, it's half-right, this is a more accessible release... but if you think Janelle Monae's style and presence doesn't infuse every inch of this record to make it easily one of the best of the year, you've got another thing coming! 

And that's something that I want to stress right out of the gate, because while you definitely hear trap percussion and thicker bass slide into the hip-hop leaning songs on the record like 'Django Jane' and segments of 'I Got The Juice', Janelle Monae is too smart a composer and producer to not interject her brand of gleaming synthesizers, elegant strings, razor-tight guitar lines, bass dripping in funk, and absolutely stunning vocal arrangements - and the fact that she gets goddamn Brian Wilson for the opening title track and 'Take A Byte' should be all the proof you need of the melodic pedigree she's drawing upon. Yes, it's less openly theatrical and grandiose than previous releases, but that's been traded for some of the most exultant melodic hooks she's ever leveraged, from the stunning watery shimmer of 'Crazy, Classic, Life' to the slightly noisier guitars behind the 80s synthfunk groove of 'Take A Byte', from the incredibly wiry synth leads of 'PYNK' that with Grimes flips a late-90s Aerosmith songs to how the electric guitar lead on 'So Afraid' feels imported from 90s alternative rock, until we get a much richer cushion of keys and vocals around the hook and a synth line that sounds imported from an Ayreon track! And what's truly stunning is how effortless it feels - sure, there's a deeper core of anger and tension, fear and melancholy to some of these tunes, but Janelle Monae doesn't shy away from how goddamn fun they can be and how she's reveling in the shimmering blur of synthetic filters and real organic presence. Even the ballads, where I found The Electric Lady could start to drag on its back half, have been significantly tightened here, with the sultry elegance of the string arrangement against the firmer funk of 'Don't Judge Me' preceded by the organ-inflected, trap-infused soul of 'I Like That' with an acoustic outro that feels wonderfully organic. Part of the reason that the trap percussion doesn't bother me here is how live the drumwork actually sounds, but it's also because Monae never lets it overwhelm any semblance of groove or flow, and when you realize this record is easily her shortest by a considerable margin, even on the longer cuts it's amazing how quickly it flows by into the huge, guitar-driven soul and funk of the closer 'Americans', the sort of subversive but deeply earnest anthem that Janelle Monae truly earns as a killer climax.

And I have to speak highly of her performance here - and look, I'll be the first to admit I really loved the paces she put her more theatrical delivery through on earlier records and how raw she got, but Dirty Computer is on a different level, not just in terms of charisma but vocal control and poise, from the sensitive coos of 'PYNK' to the deeper sensuality of 'Don't Judge Me' to a song like 'Django Jane', where her more gruff rapping is plenty convincing, carrying the sort of intensity and charisma that comes from a veteran. Hell, I'd definitely take her over whatever the hell Pharrell was trying on 'I Got The Juice' - dude, for as nakedly sexual as that song is, maybe not the best idea to include lines like 'yellow like pee in it'? Granted, his slightly awkward triplet flows are evidence of a lingering question whether if Monae was stepping into hip-hop she could have done more to push the gauntlet there - similar to my issues with 'Yoga' three years ago, given how wildly creative she's proven to be - but hey, it's not like she sounds uncomfortable on those tracks!

And now we get to the content - and make no mistake, given how much this record was projected to trade metaphor and subtext for direct text, I was concerned if and how the writing could hold up... and then I remembered this is Janelle Monae and even if the language is less outwardly poetic or more autobiographical there's still going to be plenty between the lines. And for as personal as this record gets, it's still coaxed through much of the same sci-fi language that Monae has always used, specifically surrounding the metaphors of a 'dirty computer' with respect to her and her sexuality. Indeed, the most stark and immediate subtext shows how she places this break with conformity not just against American society at large, but the religious undercurrents beneath it. 'Take A Byte' is the obvious example, actively subverting the Adam & Eve fable with a coyly open playfulness, bending the virgin/whore purity complex wrapped around angelic figures with her synthetic 'byte' in highlighting how nakedly sex-negative it is. And it's no surprise that two songs later on 'Screwed' in the fits of a world collapsing around them, her positivity in that direction leads to the line 'you fucked the world up now, we'll fuck it all back down'. But that's because there is a necessary assertion of power on this record: Janelle Monae is all too aware of how in modern society with every conflated with sex - and sex itself representative of power - there needs to be a reclamation of that pleasure, taking her rightful place at the table on 'Django Jane' but then following it with the softer, infectious power of 'PYNK'. 

So yes: it's black, it's queer, it's unmistakably feminine - and anyone who has a problem with any of the three will struggle with how strident Monae projects this presence - but dig a little deeper and you find an impressive amount of nuance, both intellectual and emotional. I love how on the hook of 'PYNK' she outright says how it's cool the boys have the blue in asserting masculinity - mostly because across this record Monae doesn't denigrate its place or value, given how she herself has embraced masculine identifiers and that's okay! I love the reclamation of the red/blue pill dichotomy of the trans narrative from The Matrix on 'Screwed' to highlight a level of underlying complexity both in terms of sexual euphoria and disruption of a broken system, especially wrapped around political references of those in her own community that would seek to restrain her. And that leads into some of the most compelling emotional drama on this record - because Janelle Monae is not unaware of how her queer sexuality flies against societal constraints, and some of that pressure becomes internalized to conform, from the childhood bullying on the third verse of 'I Like That' to the exclusions from white and male spaces and wild behavior on 'Crazy, Classic, Life'. And that leads to genuine fear and anxiety, from her hesitation to reveal more of her genuine self on 'Don't Judge Me' to those who might just 'love her disguise' - the subtext easily expands beyond just a lover - to how she acknowledges it would be so easy to conform on 'So Afraid', clean out those glitches and viruses that make her a dirty computer. But she's also keenly aware those are what makes her who she is, and that leads to 'Americans'. I'll not mince words, I love how much raw subversion she jams into this song, from the direct commentary on the entrenchment of systemic racism and sexism was entangled with religion to twisting conservative gender norms in the prechorus just by her delivering those lines. I love how she reprises the interpolation of Martin Luther King from 'Crazy, Classic, Life' for new lines speaking against hypocrisy and systemic betrayals of the American ideal, that Dr. King may well have embraced today. And I love that the patriotism of Monae's hook can ring as genuine in the same way Steve Rogers' did with Captain America: standing for the inclusive, stalwart American dream and ideal, where even the fallen angels can take up that song and be welcome. And her choice to end the record with a call to sign one's name on the dotted line is a potent call to action - which America will you stake your name?

Folks, this record is going to pile up a mountain of critical acclaim, and while there's a part of me that would question whether this is better than The ArchAndroid, it's still handily one of the best of 2018. It's the sort of record where I will not complain that it might embrace more accessible tones, because at its core is the sort of inclusive call to arms that makes such framing really damn potent. And yet it reaches transcendence because the core of Monae's performance and production has been polished to a mirror shine, enhancing those grooves and tones rather than succumbing to them. And when you consider how relentlessly catchy and genuinely fun this record can be to match its pathos... I don't know what else you could want from this! Easily a 9/10, the highest of my recommendations, and even if you haven't previously been a fan, this is the place to get onboard. It's a record you can take to heart, and in 2018, I couldn't ask for anything more.

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