It was always going to be challenging for Janelle Monáe to satisfy expectations on her third studio LP,
Dirty Computer. After all, it’s her first release not tied to the Metropolis saga, a series of concept albums—2007’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), 2010’s The ArchAndroid, and 2013’s The Electric Lady—that cumulatively housed a downright brilliant blend of imaginative storytelling and stylistic hodgepodges (including neo soul, funk, rap, pop, and classical). As such, they solidified her as a determined, creative, and sundry performer who covered her compositions in celebrated influences without ever losing originality or integrity.
For the most part, Dirty Computer upholds those standards, yet it also feels a bit too common and sophomoric in spots, with reductive songwriting and generic (though still dense and sleek) production concealing much of what made its precursors so special. That said, these misses make up only a small part of the sequence, allowing the majority of it to offer a level of infectious and intelligent fortitude worthy of her catalog thus far. Thus, Dirty Computer is her weakest release to date, but it’s still full of the Monáe magic fans adore
Clocking in at just under 50 minutes, Dirty Computer is significantly shorter than its two predecessors, which arguably makes it more easily digestible. Like those, it includes guest appearances from several notable artists, including Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams, Zoë Kravitz, Prince, and Grimes. In her recent New York Times piece with Jenna Wortham (in which Wortham aptly calls the record “a homage to women and the spectrum of sexual identities”), Monáe clarifies that “she has been circling the themes explored… [here] for at least a decade” but only recently felt self-assured enough to face them without masks. If the Metropolis suites saw her veiling her admissions, criticisms, and optimisms under the guise of Cindi Mayweather, then, Dirty Computer is her confronting those topics with absolute agency, transparency, and confidence.
Undoubtedly, the album has many demonstrations of Monáe’s singular talent. For instance, the brief title track kicks things off with a glorious opus of harmonies (obviously evoking the Beach Boys) and futuristic effects behind her soulful laments, while the ensuing “Crazy, Classic, Life” finds Monáe’s trademark glitz and catchiness surrounding her humble hopes for contentment and acceptance. Later, “Django Jane” is an in-your-face slice of hip-hop with a light score whose lyrics are both wonderfully bold and subtly self-referential, whereas “Make Me Feel” is a joyous conjuring of classic Michael Jackson and Prince.
Towards the end of Dirty Computer, “I Like That” is a sparse fusion of electronic and gospel triumph, “Don’t Judge Me” is a tranquil, somber, and beautiful bidding, “So Afraid” is profoundly earnest and symphonic, and closer “Americans” merges socially conscious decrees and satire with the jovial vibrancy of something like “Dance Apocalyptic”. For sure, there are plenty of shining moments throughout the set.
Consequently, it’s because of those peaks that scattered slip-ups stick out so much. In particular, the slight cultural commentaries of “Screwed” can’t save it from feeling like little more than a knockoff Madonna song circa the mid-1980s (both musically and subject-wise). It really feels beneath her, to be honest, as does the repetitive emptiness of “Pynk” and the club-vibe of “I Got the Juice”, which, despite its multilayered flamboyance and valiant gendered assertions, is similarly superficial. Again, these songs don’t ruin Dirty Computer by any means, but they do feel significantly subpar compared to the quality of the surrounding pieces.
Even with those shallow letdowns, however, Dirty Computer succeeds overall because of it mostly delivers the same elements that made the Metropolis lineage soar. In addition, Monáe deserves applause for proudly and fearlessly stepping away from her façade to own her desires, condemnations, and all-encompassing individuality. In that way, she continues to be sonically, politically, and narratively adventurous, exemplifying true artistry with her accessible yet challenging and confessional tracks.