Janelle Monàe and the Promise of a New America

I first met Janelle Monàe when she was 22 years-old and opening up for the Oakland neo-soul legend Raphael Saadiq at the San Francisco venue Bimbos, a mid-size club on the outskirts of that city’s North Beach neighborhood. A few months before, she’d released her debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase).  It was an exciting, groundbreaking collection. It combined the wild, post-rap funk of Outkast and afrofuturism of George Clinton with the tech dystopianism of William Gibson and a more formalalistic, Brechtian remove.

For a kid weaned on semiotics and Gang Starr, this collision was enthralling, if a bit messy. Janelle’s voice was captivating, but the songs sometimes couldn’t keep up with her energy — the backing vocals blurred together, and the choruses weren’t always memorable. In short, I liked the idea more than her music.

Regardless, she was a dynamic personality, and I was excited for the interview. About a half hour before she took the stage, her manager took me backstage, where Janelle was cloistered inside of small changing room — more of a closet than a suite. She was already outfitted in her signature white tuxedo shirt, with her hair was bunched up into its beehive coif. She was nervous, but friendly. She offered me a water, which was nice of her.

I spent the first 10 minutes of the interview trying to place her in the lineage of afrofuturism, discussing Octavia Paz and Parliament. In retrospect, it was a dumb move — I assumed that her reading of herself was the same as mine, and didn’t allow her to speak for herself — and the strategy bit me in the ass when, with five minutes left in my appointed interview window, she, annoyed and maybe embarrassed, declared that she didn’t know much about afrofuturism, she’d barely even heard of it. I felt shitty and a little bit disappointed. I hated that I had put her in a foul mood, and, more selfishly, I had no idea if anything in the interview was usable.

But her live show that night was rapturious, a prolonged ecstatic release of energy that found her bouncing, jerking, and bounding across the stage in barely controlled dance patterns. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. And though she doesn’t make dance music, you couldn’t help but move. It didn’t matter that here hooks weren’t quite there, or that she hadn’t yet been able to name her own style, the performance was special, even singular.

Since then, she’s made some jaw-dropping tracks that’ve shown immense growth and refinement, but the music, though oftentimes very very good, has never quite escaped her heavy conceptual framework. Luckily, she’s entirely catches up with herself on Dirty Computer. The album largely, though not entirely, loses the funkified Android conceit of her earlier work. It’s both more personal and more self-assured.  It glides where her other music tends to churn, and the hooks are immediately catchy, and stick in your head. It’s still occasionally directive of other people’s work — “Make Me Feel” sounds remarkably like Dirty Mind-era Prince, for example — but she entirely makes it her own here; the sums of her influence coalesce into something much more personal and singular.

It’s the best work of her career, and may end up being both the most fun and important album of 2018.

The album’s two opening tracks are among the most memorable one-two punch in recent memory. Brian Wilson’s vocal remain pop’s greatest invocation, and amidst his lilting, layered , the lead-off title resurrects Janelle’s dreamy, sensual landscape. She invites us to “look closer” at the “text message caught up in the sky.” Once again, she’s identifying with hardware (a dirty computer, in this case), but the vocals are warm and  human, and, soon, we hear MLK reciting the Declaration of Independence.

We’re onto “Crazy, Classic, Life”  now — one of the neat tricks the front half of the album pulls off is blurring the space between songs, so that it all sounds like one, long jam — and Janelle quickly asserts a theme that will run through the album. It’s 2018 now, and her and people like her are no longer on the margins; they’re now the “rulers” and “kings.”

“I’m not America’s nightmare,” she coos on the song’s pre-chorus, “I’m the American dream.”

In that way, it resembles Frank Ocean’s Blonde, another coronation of a queer America that was curtailed by Trump’s election a few months later. Monàe’s work contains little of Ocean’s melancholy or ambience; Dirty Computer is pure pop music, euphoric and uncluttered. “PYNK,” which features Montreal steam pop producer Grimes, is a technicolor march down the broadest boulevards of American culture. The song hems together and subverts lyrical archetypes. Witness the pre-chorus:

“So, here we are in the car
Leavin’ traces of us down the boulevard
I wanna fall through the stars
Getting lost in the dark is my favorite part
Let’s count the ways we could make this last forever”

Taken out of context, this could be sung by Tom Petty, Britney Spears, or any number of chroniclers of main street adolescence. That Janelle is using this in the service of an anthem to pansexuality should be subversive, but, in 2018, it seems perfectly normal. This is a victory for all of us.

Monàe’s previous music has always seemed to exist in a different time. The revved-up guitar riffs and funky drummer breakdowns place her in the ‘60s, while the lyrics’ runaway-Android lover motif put her firmly in the (20)40s. But Dirty Computer feels necessarily of this time. The world caught up with her. The techno-dystopian daydream of her earlier work has become a crippling reality, and, yes, that’s unfortunate. But the sheer, self-conscious otherness of Janelle, which ten years ago was a commercial liability, is not only permissible, but is celebrated, and this album is funky testament to this new freedom.