On a Sunday afternoon, the world feels lazy. The sun’s orangish-yellow barely showers through windows, and April’s slightly frigid air takes its sweet time warming to comfortable temperatures. It’s the kind of day where conversations should be easy, and chores should be light, much like the voice belonging to Janelle Monaé as she welcomes herself through the phone. Her tone is fluent and flat, but not monotonous. It enters the conversation with the same elegance her presence would in a room, but not the way her presence did on the Internet three weeks ago.
The Kansas City native tore through Twitter’s trending topics with the song and accompanying visual for “Pynk,” the third single from her latest studio undertaking, Dirty Computer. The record winks at every facet of femininity— anatomy, expression, emotion, and the universal color of girl power. Its music video garnishes these elements in all things literally and figuratively “pynk.” A pair of Monaé’s newly-coined “vagina pants” and “p**sy power” neon signs are flagrant deliveries of her womanhood salute, while yonic imagery like grapefruit and flowers are more euphemistic reminders.
“Pynk” was met with raving fanfare from The ArchAndroid singer’s eponymous Fandroids, who have switched to standby mode since 2013 when Monaé released her last studio album. The track is summery, pulsating, and bows to Monaé’s signature futurism, a timely trio arriving at the end of a long winter and the beginning of balmy spring months. The single and visual flew to the top of Twitter’s trending topics list within a matter of minutes, and think pieces peeling back the layers of “Pynk” became abundant.
I am someone who's lived in the future for so long, so sometimes I lose track of time, too.
Monaé humbly acknowledges of “Pynk”’s critical reception. “I'm thankful for their time, love, dedication and being patient with me. I don't feel like it's been a long time. I don't deal with time in that way,” she says between laughter. “I am someone who's lived in the future for so long, so sometimes I lose track of time, too. But if feels great! It's always a wonderful thing to show up at somebody's house and they open up the door, and I think that's what's happening with the music."
Still, five years of twiddling their thumbs for a full-length project can feel like a lifetime for Janelle Monaé fans. But, “musical hiatus” isn’t quite the term to describe that interim period. Through her distribution deal at Wondaland Records, Monaé’s independent label with a tandem of like-minded creatives, she dropped off fan favorites, like “Yoga,” and curated the music careers of Wondaland artists Jidenna, Roman GianArthur, and the St. Beauty and Deep Cotton duos. The Electric Lady synergized her squadron for a five-track EP debuting the respective sound of each label talent: Wondaland Presents: The Eephus.
The project’s title is inspired by baseball terminology used to describe a pitch thrown in such a way that it catches its hitter off-guard, much in the manner that each Wondaland artist does sonically and aesthetically. Take the “Classic Man,” a.k.a. Jidenna, for example, who unleashed the debut single that dominated 2015’s music charts and threw everyone for a curve after featuring one of Compton’s leading rap talents Kendrick Lamar on its remix. Monaé also enlisted the suited-and-booted Nigerian star for the aforementioned “Yoga” hit as well.
“When I was making ‘Yoga’ I was really inspired and still am inspired by the artists who have been around me,” she says. “We had these retreats where Jidenna, and St. Beauty, and Roman, and Deep Cotton and all of our artists would come over. We would just spend a week at a time at Wondaland, our studio and creative hub, and literally just create and force ourselves and challenge ourselves to think outside of the box, and think outside of some of the ways we were making music, and try out new ideas. Doing that really opened up my mind to different muscles I didn't even know that I had, and different conversations I wanted to have. So, that helped me open up even more on [Dirty Computer].”
It was important for me to show that through the visuals and the album and allow that to be my guide of what it really means to be young, Black and a woman in America.
before I press play on its April 27 release date. Coincidentally, three is a perfect number, acquiescing with her three-part symbolism of the album’s peculiar title. The first word she offers is “journey,” as the listener travels through the definition, celebration and reclamation of themselves as a dirty computer. The second word, or concept rather, is “Black girl magic,” which frameworks the entire body of work Dirty Computer provides Black girls with a vibe for all of their womanhood needs and a sense of ownership, Monaé described, from the lyrics down to the visuals.
“If you look at what I've put out thus far, there's so many types of beautiful, young Black women that I'm inspired by when I look at all of the images,” she says. “BET has done a great job at showing our uniqueness and being diverse in the way you see us on the station. For a lot of media, there are still stereotypes that I don't feel show our beauty. I grew up around so many strong, Black women and I have lots of Black women in my life, and I feel we don't get celebrated enough. It was important for me to show that through the visuals and the album and allow that to be my guide of what it really means to be young, Black and a woman in America.”
Without Prince, without Paisley Park, I don't think we'd know how far we could take it— I could take it— as an artist.”
Records like the title track, followed up by the bass-happy “Crazy, Classic Life” breathes freshly into the essence of that young, Black womanhood:
Young, black, wild and free
Naked on a limousine
Riding through the hood real slow
I love it when we smell the trees
I just wanna party hard
Sex in the swimming pool
I don't need a lot of cash
I just wanna break the rules
The Zoë Kravitz-assisted ode to a shambled life, “Screwed,” sharpens the straits of Black womanhood. Monaé sings on the track about living her life in a magazine, on a TV screen and on birth control, all while blasting her brains out to rock and roll.. Kravitz joins her on the edgy chorus as the two lyricize off of the straight edge, swallowing life’s toughest pills with a middle finger in the air while they’re at it.
“Freedom” completes Monaé’s triad of top words to describe the album. Dirty Computer imbues Monaé with the spirit of creative liberty she once never possessed, but yearned for. Formerly, she would start up a song, then go through a rigorous process of self-editing and backpedaling that would inevitably return her to a blank piece of paper. A self-inflicting writer’s block, if you will. Honesty and vulnerability helped her chip away at this stubborn boulder of self-doubt, leading her to conceive her newest opus—14 raw tracks of self-fulfilling, self-actualizing me-ness.
a journey of Black girl magic freedom— in just 48 minutes. Within seconds, the mystic, space-age theme and expository introduction suspends viewers into the narrative quickly. Monaé, as Jane 57821, exists in a totalitarian future where humanity has been stripped from citizens, and “computer” is the term to describe each being. Jane 57821 is a “dirty computer” being escorted on a stretcher of sorts and placed in a room to await her “cleansing” fate. This will be completed by a gas, which is administered in a place called the “House of the New Dawn” to “drain them of their dirt and all of the things that made them special.” Monaé’s rebellious character is resistant and unwilling as the film unravels, revealing her fondest memories of individuality that are erased by deadpan oppressors and their “Launch Nevermind” machinery.
The Wondaland Records leader architects Dirty Computer’s sound and visuals into the film in a way that only a true woman of the arts would. Each of Jane 57821’s memories are actually Monaé’s music videos for several tracks from the album, beginning with the untamed “Crazy, Classic Life” and moving onto tracks like the pop-jazzy “Make Me Feel,” ending the film with the track, “Americans” (the only song that is not accompanied by a visual). Hollywood actress Tessa Thompson, who makes her second debut after her cameo in “Pynk,” is Monaé’s love interest and “torch,” the identification used for “cleaned” computers that were also once dirty. Together, Thompson and Monaé’s characters had a lovers’ past that they both struggle to remember and is recollective only by a tattoo on the inside of Jane 57821’s wrist. The third part of their love triangle, Che Achebe Patient 06756 (who also appears in Monaé’s memories of love and open sexuality) becomes the next cleansing victim after Monaé’s session. She’s now his aforementioned “torch,” and is mundanely renamed Mary Apple 54— there to “bring him from the darkness into the light.” A refreshing plot twist erupts in the room: it’s Thompson, who passes both of them protective gas masks as they overflow the building with the humanity-stripping, computer-cleansing vapor, wiping out their oppressors. The three lovers escape, free to live their nonconformist, filth-comping lives.
The concept is an echo of Monaé’s highly-celebrated reveal of her sexuality, which she shared in an April Rolling Stone cover story. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherf***er," she shared with the magazine. “But then later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.' I'm open to learning more about who I am."
Monaé is generous in crediting those who helped her come to such self-actualization as well, notably the late Royal Badness, Prince. She was fortunate enough to develop a relationship with him both off-wax and offstage before his April 2016 passing. He is profoundly embedded in her musical DNA, she lauds of The Prince of Funk. “To have him as a mentor was a blessing because he was always offering his guidance,” she says of his influence. “He took me on tour with him when I was going this process of the album. When I had questions or wanted to run anything by him he always made sure that I knew he was available. He was also a fan of the music we did here at Wondaland, and my writing.”
Having the noble honor of being Prince’s mentee is enough to send chills up any musician’s spine, but Monaé is humble and unpretentious in her reverence of him. Prince was a man of unfamed altruism, so she doesn’t wish to share with me all of the favors, gifts and alms he paid forth. He was just “one of those people who gave from his heart and not for the recognition,” she remembers of him. “I'll always honor him whenever I can and speak his name whenever I can. Without Prince, without Paisley Park, I don't think we'd know how far we could take it— I could take it— as an artist.”
Dirty Computer is a righteous indicator of that distance in 2018.
I needed to tap into embracing the things that make me unique even if it makes others uncomfortable this time around.
and nappy hair, and sloppy kisses, and topless summers on the beach, and torsos out of the car windows, and loud burps when the food is delicious, and fingernails passionately ripping bed sheets, and everything else in this world that makes “them” feel funny, but makes “us” feel free. Monaé shares too much of herself to have just one idea she’d like to shine the brightest from the album. She wanders around this question that she describes as “heavy” before abruptly stopping to rephrase.
“What I'm trying to say is that self-love and appreciation is very important to me and this album has caused me to have to make sure that I am loving myself despite what the media says about the color of my skin, my body, my hair or my looks,” she says. Her voice is less rushed now. “I needed to tap into embracing the things that make me unique even if it makes others uncomfortable this time around.”
To this degree, Monaé’s “dirty computer” is the cleanest it’s ever been.