Janelle Monáe has previously recounted the raw emotion that made it so difficult - and also so incredibly necessary - to record ‘Django Jane’, one of the first singles to be released from Dirty Computer, and also her first entirely rapped track. A stately reverse piano and distorted bass is positioned against her unapologetic verse: ‘For the culture / I kamikaze’.
It’s maybe unsurprising that the track was so difficult to record, given that Dirty Computer is the first Monáe album to be fully divorced from her android alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather: stripped of the science fiction metaphors, she’s able to unveil herself, offering a clearer sense of her relationship to her identity. Compared to her last two, this album is less theatrical, less grand, and a lot more to-the-point. ‘Screwed’ is a good example, with guest Zoë Kravitz and Monáe sardonically blending sex and politics, with trippy vocoders and expertly produced pop. Everything from the bass to the clap percussion is perfectly in place, exactly where it should be.
[pullquote]Monae is even freer now she’s distanced from her concept albums and given more room to vocally experiment.[/pullquote]
The same goes for ‘Make Me Feel’, a modernisation of classic funk-pop in the vein of Jackson and Prince, the latter of whom contributed the synth groove prior to his passing. Fat synths crescendo alongside semi-Motown backing vocals, further emphasising Monáe’s range, even freer now she’s distanced from her concept albums and given more room to vocally experiment.
There are some tracks that feel safer than others, though. ‘PYNK’ and ‘I Got The Juice’ both suffer from harmonic and melodic cliché, sounding too much like they could come from someone else; they’re just not distinctively Janelle. And while her performance carries them well, they’re let down even further by tracks like the psychedelic, funky ‘Take A Byte’, with seductive, husky vocals, disco percussion and a hypnotic harmonic structure that changes intricately with each repetition. It recalls prior Monáe material but that’s no bad thing. The same goes for ‘Don’t Judge Me’, a heartfelt wish that her fans will love her for her, not for Cindi, her ‘disguise’. It’s computerised and retro all in one. The computerised, glitchy parts include, of course, the arpeggiating synths, moving in and out of earshot, while it’s ‘retro’ in that every part is thickly layered with itself, creating even further harmonic complexity. It’s one of the most intimate songs on the album, her voice soft and soulful, strings soaring alongside her.
The closer, ‘Americans’, sarcastically espouses the hypocrisy of the American dream; it’s energetic but also dissonant, unsettling. It emphasizes how much Monáe has to say on this album, and that’s possibly why it feels like each part seems to be jostling for space. This makes the album quite uneven, with a few missteps for every moment of brilliance. But the triumphs soar even higher than her previous body of work. And that means I don’t miss Cindi: I want to get to know Janelle.