It’s been 5 years since Janelle Monáe released her album “The Electric Lady.” The sequel to her sophomore classic, “The ArchAndroid,” it was met with positive but not overwhelming reviews. Since then, Monáe has been a fixture in the mainstream, appearing in a number of high profile films including “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.” It was a welcome surprise when “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane,” the singles from Monáe’s newly announced album “Dirty Computer,” were released in February of 2018. The two singles were sharp, catchy, and widely different, giving fans no real indication as to the sonic direction of the new project, which was now being dubbed an “Emotion Picture.” In the weeks that followed, Monáe released “PYNK (feat. Grimes)” and “I Like That” before the release of the album and accompanying 48-minute short film on April 27. Varied, fiery, and fun, the album’s strong vocals and eclectic production make it Monáe’s best album since “The ArchAndroid” and one of the best records of 2018.
“Dirty Computer” kicks off with the title song featuring Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Sweet and short, the song functions as more of an introduction, with the first true song being “Crazy, Classic, Life.” The tune here is strong enough, and the vocal performance and production are both full of personality. The real issue here is that Monáe sells herself short lyrically, leaving listeners with a song that has plenty of charm but is short on ambition. The album’s first hit is “Screwed (ft. Zȯė Kravitz),” which has an infectious hook and a bunch of playful uses of the word “screwed” in the context of desire and power. The vocal harmonies at the end of the song transition seamlessly into “Django Jane,” one of the album’s breakout singles. Here, Monáe shows off her rapping ability over a hefty, trap-inspired beat. Hugely confident and commanding, Monáe’s delivery really shines through on this track as she raps about being a black woman in the music industry. “PYNK (feat. Grimes)” takes the album in a stylistic180, replacing the swagger of “Django Jane” with delicate, indie pop. Grimes’ involvement seems to have been more with general songwriting and harmonies of the track, but the Monáe’s timid vocals in the verses definitely carry a strong Grimes influence. Monáe isn’t shy about emulating her influences, as “Make Me Feel” is reminiscent of Prince’s “Queen,” the late star being a known friend and collaborator of Monáe’s. “Make Me Feel” shines as the climax of the album, splitting the album in two with its powerful vocals and huge energy. The album doesn’t top the spectacle of “Make Me Feel,” but the back half has a number of great tracks including “I Like That,” “I Got the Juice (feat. Pharrell Williams),” and “Don’t Judge Me.” “I Like That” is a slick R&B track with a relatively plain instrumental, but the vocals and lyrical content more than make up for it with Monáe belting out an earworm chorus and rapping in the second half about embracing her identity and style. “I Got the Juice” continues in the vein of instrumental variety and features a percussive and oddball verse from Pharrell himself. While it’s definitely one of the quieter moments on the album, “Don’t Judge Me” is sensual and smooth, featuring restrained but emotive vocals.
While not all listeners will choose to consume “Dirty Computer” alongside the 48 minute short film or “emotion picture,” it’s worth noting the picture’s few additions and alterations to the standard listening experience. The short film does very little to alter the music, weaving narrative skits in between music videos. However, the emotion picture version of “PYNK” features an extra verse from Monáe which adds another dimension to the already fun song. Otherwise, the picture situates the themes of the album in a futuristic setting not too far removed from the narratives of Monáe’s previous work.
On “Dirty Computer” listeners can really hear Janelle Monáe hitting her stride. With songs spanning a myriad of genres and styles, there’s something for everyone on “Dirty Computer.” Dealing with themes of race and identity, female empowerment, and vulnerability, Monáe couples her strong vocals with a number of thoughtful lyrics. Ultimately, “Dirty Computer” is one of the most versatile and enjoyable pop records of the year, and definitely Monáe’s strongest project since “The ArchAndroid.”