Dirty Computer is Janelle Monae’s third album and the first to diverge from the storyline that featured on all previous releases, including 2008’s debut EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite. This means that, at least for the sake of presentation, Monae is here for the first time singing from her own point of view rather than that of her Metropolis character, Cindi Mayweather, and thankfully she has something to say.
Combining the indie pop elements of The ArchAndroid and the silky, funk-laced R&B of The Electric Lady, Dirty Computer takes both and smooths them over 14 perfectly manicured tracks. As a writer and vocalist Monae has never sounded as confident and is clearly relishing singing these songs of sexual and self-identity, assertions of power in terms of race, gender and sexual politics.
Taken on their own, the songs reap immediately impressive rewards, which is why the previously released singles, particular the stripped back funk of ‘Make Me Feel’, the Kravitz-style funk rock of ‘Pynk’ and the soulful R&B of ‘I Like That’, seemed to anticipate a jewel in Monae’s crown. Unfortunately, taken as whole it is disappointing to find that Dirty Computer has less substance than it may initially appear to. From song to song Monae doesn’t explore her chosen subject matter from many different angles or at any great depth, which has the effect of making each defiant cry of power seem less powerful by virtue of its thematic repetition.
The album generally has a laid-back, keyboard funk base with enough space for Monae to squeeze every bit of sensuality out of the lyrics and points to her influences of Prince, Stevie Wonder, featured here on ‘Stevie’s Dream’, as well as Pharrell, who makes an appearance on the Caribbean flavoured ‘I Got the Juice’. Monae also utilises the stilted, spoken word rap style that she introduced on Electric Lady, and while that added a fierce energy to that album’s ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’, here it is overused and lacking in rhythmic variety.
Packed with vocal hooks, quotable lyrics and unifying, guitar-heavy choruses that may have been designed with festival crowds in mind, this should have been Monae’s Lemonade. The super clean, up-front production intimates that this was made with plans for career elevation and world domination, and while it does come together perfectly, this perfection is at the expense of some of the quirkiness that set Monae apart at the start of her career. Overall this album has some great tracks that seem less when taken in context and leans too heavily on its production, its perfection acting as a barrier for emotional connection.