Are You a Dirty Computer?
Written by: Na'cha Saeed
It’s the year 2719 and you’ve just stumbled upon a time capsule filled with a select few memorabilia intended to reminisce on the glamour that is the 2000s era. Inside, you discover: Soulja Boy “Crank Dat” YouTube videos, a bag of Migos Rap Snacks, an .html screenshot of Black Twitter as the head of national news, entertainment and lifestyle in media and most importantly Janelle Monáe’s third studio album Dirty Computer. The latter is a contemporary stroke of genius in every sense of the word. Wanting to gain a broad understanding of this daring, musical composition--accompanied by a 46-minute visual picture--you grab your rap snacks, take a seat and swan dive into the world of Monáe’s creative, alter-ego Cindi Mayweather.
Dirty Computer--released on April 27th, 2018, reaching Number 1 on Billboard’s R&B Chart--can be described using three words: funky, nonconformist and afro-futuristic AF. From the captivating, narrative film project self-titled as an “emotion picture,” to the energetic press roll out chock-full of multiple singles and video releases that honored the work of art in the most exciting way, Monáe managed to give us all the feel good vibes of music and fashion from the 70s and 80s while simultaneously challenging our views of gender, race, sex, capitalism, class, socio-economics and politics. We all love a liberated, social-justice warrior that expands our way of thinking, especially when they deliver the perfect balance of past and present, objectiveness and subjectiveness. One the coolest parts of design within Dirty Computer is the choice of collaborators featured throughout the music. On the intro of the album “Dirty Computer,” you hear the legendary Beach Boys co-founder Brian Wilson’s harmonies setting a very sand-and-swimsuit-ready mood; bass guitarist and singer Thundercat, acclaimed for work on Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer prize winning album To Pimp a Butterfly can be credited in track 3 of the album “Take a Byte”. Fast forward to one of my favorite satire-filled tracks “Screwed” and you’re introduced to Zoë Kravitz along with a spoken word piece on inspiring song “Stevie’s Dream” from Stevie Wonder himself. Pharrell and Grimes also make a noteworthy appearance in drum-filled, dance banger “I Got The Juice” and sexually liberating song “Pynk” respectively. Sleepy Brown on track 11 “I Like That” and Isis Valentino from Wondaland Records signed St. Beauty Band based in Atlanta on track 11 “Don’t Judge Me” also adds vocals to the pot of collaborators to help create the right vibes.
To help understand the roots and influence of her latest album from the standpoint of a new listener, one would need a short summary describing the four-part Metropolis Saga and a description of science fiction character Cindi May weather’s plight. Janelle has made a career of dishing out very, well thought-out, conceptual albums that create an epic story for fans to follow--a task that not many artists have been able to successfully do during the 21st century. Inspired by Fritz Lang, Janelle’s sci-fi tale is introduced in her 2007 released EP Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase). It should be noted that her first body of work The Audition is not a part of the chronology but includes mention of themes and concepts further explored in later works. Moving forward, we learn in track 1 of Metropolis through a spoken word piece “The March of the Wolfmasters” that Android No. 57821 b.k.a divergent android Cindi Mayweather has fallen in love with a human named Anthony Greendown and is susceptible to disassembly by droid bounty hunters in this dystopian society. The supporting songs and videos give context into the dissatisfaction of life that individuals in this cyborg society seem to experience. Cindi Mayweather appears as the voice of the people, calling for a change in the belief of the power of Love.
From there, critically acclaimed debut album The ArchAndroid: Suite II & III released in 2010 shows us a more confident Cindi Mayweather finding her calling as the savior of her city. Ultimately, she decides to flee the city to protect her lover and herself and become a hero of many. This album received Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary R&B Album as well as Best Urban/Alternative Performance for lead single “Tightrope” ft Big Boi of Outkast. Next, in 2013 Monáe released Electric Lady: Suite IV & V which offers us a deeper journey into Cindi Mayweather development. Here, she is fearless, she is unstoppable and she is challenging the status-quo. The features in this album are vast: including collaborations from Prince, Erykah Badu, Solange and Miguel.
Enter Dirty Computer and in pure theatrical honor, Monáe makes the album’s complementary “emotion picture” an extension of her fantasy world. In the visual configuration, the plot is set with Monáe (Jane 57821) being “cleaned” in a sanitary facility by a totalitarian government ruling that states anyone with a unique characteristic is a dirty computer and deserving of a special rehabilitation. The film shows two government do-boys working to clean Jane’s memory while funneling through her flashbacks that double as the music videos that were released during the album’s promotional run. This was a brilliant move by Janelle that encapsulates your understanding into an array of heightened emotions that draw you closer to the character’s Zen (Tessa Thompson, Cindi’s love interest)--who we learned recently is the real-life boo of Janelle--and Ché (played by Jayson Aaron), the second lover of Jane 57821 in the short film. The inclusion of the leather studded jackets, the advanced technology, the Black Panther, woman-warrior uniforms of rap single “Django Jane” is very purposeful to her storyline. There are MLK sound-bites and many tributes to pop icons like Prince--Monáe’s late mentor--such as the sexy, liberated feel and guitar riffs of “Make Me Feel” as well as to David Bowie, that you can only be sure are smiling down on the spirit of this album.
The most important takeaways are the anecdotes of sexual freedom and solidarity in every song. Janelle raps about gender equality and living out your true purpose. She shows us a side of we’ve never seen before; one that is transparent and vulnerable. We learn of her struggle with wanting acceptance in her surroundings but trouble in finding the voice to demand it in songs like “Don’t Judge Me” and “So Afraid”. Her confessional serves as a modern-day snapshot of what so many individuals currently go through--the desire to feel normal and loved in such a hateful society. Dirty Computer speaks volumes for every marginalized person. You’re left to feel remarkably empowered after grooving to this project. When you think about it, we all exist as dirty computers. There is no use in fighting a reality that was never meant to be changed. This prompts me to ask listeners, what is it that you’re really afraid of? With the current state of the nation, who are we to not live our lives as authentically free and creative as possible? Isn’t that, after all, the American Dream?