Janelle Monáe’s ‘Dirty Computer’ takes the tired and dead and makes it breathe again.
Vocal harmonies, the likes of which The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson seems to have mastered (if not pioneered, to a degree), were toyed with a few years back on a curious little concept album he put out covering George Gershwin songs. Weird confluence, that – a couple of American masters meeting up a few decades past their prime. But to hear Rhapsody in Blue sung as a four part vocal harmony in the style of Pet Sounds was something, to say the least.
The confluence is part of what makes it interesting, so when Janelle Monáe’s latest album Dirty Computer opens with its title track and features Wilson helping out with the vocals, it signals a nod to the past while being a stunning and innovative opus of black, queer, feminist empowerment.
All shapes and sizes, right?
One way to approach this thing is by first understanding how Monáe approaches recording albums, by, say, taking in The ArchAandroid and knowing that these are large, multi-faceted, multi-genre concept pieces which seem to either defy description or just occupy multiple ideas and disciplines. Also, since Monáe herself recently came out as pansexual, we’re dealing with someone here who’s generally not that keen on labels.
Also, think that if Prince shuffling off this mortal coil left a vacancy, Janelle Monáe might just be the one to pick up the gauntlet. Her music is like the Purple One at his best: fused with pop-funk electricity, nodding to previous influences while at the same time owning the future with its visionary status. Crazy Classic Life has echoes of Paisley Park in it, as does Americans, and if Pynk contained any less subtle allusions to anatomy, well, you’d have to include ob/gyn to Monáe’s singer-actress hyphenate.
I Got the Juice is a track featuring Pharrell; and should the (current) US President choose to listen to this record (I’m sure he has the time), his attention may be grabbed by Monáe’s claim that “…this pussy grab you back”. The morning after his election seems to have been a key influence in the art here, and that is a very good thing.
The album’s tracks flow through the piece woven together by a singular artistic vision. By closing with Americans, she casts into the cultural zeitgeist a powerful bookend to Childish Gambino’s This is America, a differing vision which eschews fear and carnage and tilts towards empowerment and endurance.
This is great art. I may not have been the target demo; the appreciation of a work like this from a reviewer who looks like me is probably mere garnish atop the overall artistic scope, but hey, good things…