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Janelle Monáe’s new album “Dirty Computer” feels cutting-edge

R&B singer Janelle Monae performs for the audience during a campaign event for President Barack Obama, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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R&B singer Janelle Monae performs for the audience during a campaign event for President Barack Obama, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Jared Duroe, Staff writer

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“Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me,” Janelle Monáe sings in a relaxed lower register on the opening title track of her new album, “Dirty Computer.” Backed by the gorgeous harmonies of the legendary Brian Wilson, Monáe uses this short track to introduce some of the album’s themes, which include feeling like the “other,” like there’s something about you that makes you dirty and in need of fixing. After these instantly engaging opening moments, Monáe goes on a streak of creative brilliance throughout most of the album. She acts as a powerful voice for the people in society who cannot always speak up for themselves – people of color (particularly women of color) and queer folks.

Equal parts protest and celebration, this record possesses a spirit so headstrong and free, it practically bleeds through the music into your ears. There is not a single bad track here, although some moments could use a bit more sonic originality. The best example of this can be heard on “Take A Byte,” a fairly standard funk-pop tune that unfortunately leaves something to be desired in its composition. However, with clever lyrics that reference technology and how it can rob us of our individuality, the song still manages to be fun and charming.

The short interlude following “Take A Byte” segues right into “Screwed”, a song so entertaining and addicting it’s begging to be released as a single. Employing a double-entendre alluding to both the current political climate and sex as a force of liberation, Monáe was inspired to record this song the day after the 2016 election, in an attempt to capture the feeling of being “screwed,” a feeling many people experienced. It passes with flying colors, and she even shows off her rap skills at the end of the track, spitting bars like “hundred men telling me to cover up my areolas / while they blocking equal pay, sippin’ on they Coca Colas” and “the devil met with Russia and they just made a deal / we was marching through the street, they were blocking every bill.” These references to the political climate we live in firmly root this album in the real world, giving it a sense of urgency and meaning that was absent on her previous records.

The trap-influenced “Django Jane” is a banger, presenting some of the most charismatic and assertive rapping I’ve heard from anyone this year. Following are two of the best tracks on the album, “Pynk,” which features the alternative electro-pop savant and previous collaborator Grimes on backing vocals, and “Make Me Feel,” a gloriously unabashed musical homage to her late mentor, Prince. These two songs showcase what Monáe does best: bringing seemingly disparate musical influences together to create intensely fun and meaningful works of art. “Pynk” is a whimsical track propelled by a buoyant synthetic bassline and finger snaps. A beautifully understated guitar line arrives on the pre-chorus, underscoring a radiant melody from Monáe and vivid lyrics about “leaving traces of us down the boulevard” and how she wants to “fall through the stars”. When the chorus hits, it’s like a sweet rush of dopamine flooding your system. The color pink serves as a euphemism for a vagina throughout the track, as Monáe revels in the beauty of herself and other women. The song is an enveloping celebration of women and feminism.

“Make Me Feel,” the album’s excellent lead single, is a joyous and funky ode to feelings of infatuation. Despite being short and crisp, the song is quite intense and concentrated. It seamlessly blends retro production trends and modern electronic sensibilities into a song so Prince-like, it comes as no surprise that he made contributions to the track before he passed away. Paired with its extraordinarily vibrant music video, the song transforms into a pansexual
anthem, three minutes of music so well-executed that it’ll be difficult for many other singles to surpass it this year.
The Latin-influenced “I Got The Juice” features Pharrell Williams and is unfortunately just decent. However, there are lyrics which directly counter comments made from none other than our misogynist-in-chief, adding a feminist edge to the track that saves it.

The last several tracks on the album showcase Monáe in a more vulnerable state, particularly on the romantic six-minute stunner, “Don’t Judge Me,” and the soulful “So Afraid,” songs that allow us to connect with her more as a real person. Featuring lyrics like “even though you tell me you love me, I’m afraid that you just love my disguise,” and “I’m fine in my shell / I’m afraid of it all, afraid of loving you,” these songs incorporate hints of psychedelic neo-soul
and gospel, bringing out a welcome atmosphere of poignancy that really makes the album feel complete and lived-in.
The peppy closing track, “Americans,” serves as a political mission statement of sorts, laying out some of the inequalities Monáe and others face in the United States due to their race, gender and sexual identities. She sings of her desire to be loved for who she is and for her artistry to be recognized as valid. It effectively connects back to the opening track in the sense that both songs function as thematic declarations, making the album feel like a whole package. “Dirty Computer” is an album so unapologetic and radically inclusive that it feels revolutionary. Full of masterful performances, intelligent lyricism, and shimmering production, this is a record for the ages.

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Janelle Monáe’s new album “Dirty Computer” feels cutting-edge