A Tale of Two Americas
It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times.
Imagine a society plunged into darkness and buoyed by alternative truths. Its population falsely comforted by delusions of former glory peddled by a dishonest government. Why boldly march into the future the government tweets, when all that was great laid in the past? And so with exquisite coordination, the government rolled back progress. The people who stood in the way of this erasure, who refused alternative truths and rebuffed the delusions were deemed threats to the emerging order. These ‘dirty computers’ were the opposition, and they had to be cleaned. Or face elimination.
Enter Jane Doe (played by Miss Monae). A self-admitted dirty computer who is up for cleaning. We meet her at the beginning of the 'Dirty Computer' emotion picture and immediately the viewer has questions. Why is Jane a dirty computer? Will she be cleaned? And what will become of her post-cleaning?
The answer to these questions and more are answered in Janelle Monae's 'Dirty Computer' a beautiful album and visual album (thank you Beyoncé) that effortlessly weaves themes of black pride, sexual liberation, feminism, womanism, queer love, and resistance. This album is a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor's horcrux and the Republican party's worst nightmare.
Dirty Computer is rich and layered, but before we critically dissect this album, we must first appreciate the context of the album’s release. Like location and Michelle Obama, context is everything.
It IS the worst of times. My opening line is not just a bastardized reference to ‘A Tale of Two Cities.” It’s direct commentary on the current state of American politics. We are living under an administration that is upending our democratic institutions and curtailing civil rights for the most vulnerable populations, the so called dirty computers. The emotion picture opens with a fictional government doing just that.
The first lines:
“They started calling us computers. People began vanishing, and the cleaning began.
You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated.
You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition, at all. And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time."
Here Janelle Monae is positioning her work as a political statement in direct conversation with current affairs in society. First time listeners immediately understand that ‘Dirty Computer’ won’t be your average pop album with trite lyrics and lazy beat drops (👀Chainsmokers). No, as per usual, Janelle Monae, our favorite android turned dirty computer is using her art to culturally critique.
So on a global warming induced hot af summer day, Miss Monae aka Django Jane gathers us listeners on the steps of her front porch and serves us sweet feminist black queer tea. Flavor - ‘Dirty Computer.’
Y’all this tea is hot. Shall we sip?
Take A Byte
Throughout the album and the accompanying emotion picture, Janelle Monae likens herself to a misfit; she stands outside of the prevailing culture and is proud of it. Dirty computer is a metaphor for difference, for bucking the status quo. In the emotion picture, Jane Doe admits to being a dirty computer and we witness the systematic cleaning of her joyous, rebellious, queer, black memories. The first song and scenes from the emotion picture set up the dramatic tension of the album. Although dirty computers are out here living their best lives, they are being targeted and cleaned by the state. Sounds familiar? *cough* ABOLISH ICE.
It’s no coincidence Janelle Monae starts her album with the song ‘Dirty Computer.’ I love albums with a song that shares the album title. For critics, it’s the X on the treasure map for finding an album’s emotional and artistic center. One of them at least. On the song 'Dirty Computer' the album’s emotional center is revealed by carefully analyzing the lyrics.
First, Janelle is singing to an unidentified person, another dirty computer.
Dirty computer walking by.
If you look closer, you’ll recognize.
I’m not that special, I’m broke inside.
Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me.
The persona Janelle Monae is adopting feels not only different, but also defective. She's not special, she's broke. She's crashing slowly. Why? Because of her internal bugs (solid computer reference here). Furthermore, there is distance between Janelle and her love interest. Janelle is serving 'admiring onlooker from afar with low self-esteem' realness. And honestly our middle school selves can relate . The lyric "if you look closer" highlights the literal distance between the two individuals and as a listener/critic I wonder, will this dirty computer get what she desires or will she need a (non-functioning) iOS update?
Later she sings:
I’ll love you in this space and time.
Cuz baby all I’ll ever be is your dirty computer.
Classically as an artist, Janelle Monae has played with ideas of space and time, especially in her previous albums where she adopted the android persona. It's nice to see those themes emerge in this album's first song. I point out this lyric specifically though to highlight that at its heart 'Dirty Computer' is an album about love. Despite being a dirty computer, Ms. Monae's character professes her love - a love so deep it would occupy both space and time, if she's given the chance. She repeats this line 3 times in a 2 minute song, so you know this love is important.
Dirty Computer the song is great when you consider the arc of the album. In the first song, we meet a not very confident dirty computer who self-deprecates and believes she's not worthy of love, but wants it nonetheless. For the rest of the album, we get songs about love of self, love of body, love of country, and love of man and woman. This last love is critical because the album boldly centers queer love. It normalizes it.
Prior to the album’s release, Janelle Monae came out as pansexual, and in the emotion picture entertains both a male and female partner. Her love needs no labels and knows no boundaries. If this makes her a dirty computer, so be it.
By the end of the album Janelle Monae has effectively come out.
She is a Dirty Computer. She has bugs. She wants love. And shante, she is here to stay.
Crazy Classic Life
The song starts with a black man exclaiming:
You told us – we hold these truths to be self-evident.
That all men and women are created equal.
That they are endowed by their creator by certain unalienable rights.
Among these, life, liberty, and the, and the pursuit of happiness.
I love this opening! “You told us” is damning as hell. You! America, the white founding fathers, and your scam of a Declaration of Independence. “You told us” is accusatory and for good reason. Those 'unalienable rights' you extol? Yea, for the majority of America’s history they did not apply to black and brown people. Men and women may have been created equal, but their treatment? #MeToo
The intro to Crazy Classic Life (CCL) is concise yet punchy. It effectively sets up the crux of the song’s thesis - a juxtaposition of the failures of the American promise with the young, black, wild, and free life Monae seeks, a life she was told was an unalienable right.
Crazy Classic Life is exuberant. It’s petulant. It’s the sonic representation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This song makes me want to drive down the Pacific Coast Highway in a limousine with my hands in the air living my crazy, classic, life (undeterred by systemic racism and structural violence exacted on black bodies of course). In reality, I'd probably get only 1 mile in before some well-meaning white lady calls the cops on me.
See NYT Article: When White People Call The Cops on Black People
The vocal performance of CCL is top notch! The exuberance of the high note Janelle hits at the song’s climax feels like the hopes and dreams of the enslaved fulfilled. The note is Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” in sonic form. I lip-sync it every time. And in the bathroom, it's a full on belt.
The CCL video is a declaration of independence from societal norms and the status quo. We see fashion-forward dressed people, different gendered couples, we witness fringe traditions placed squarely in the center. Some MAGA people may see these images and think "we’re living the American nightmare", but Monae sees it as the American cool.
At its core, CCL is a resistance song masquerading as an infectious bop. We have the damning intro accusing America on failing to deliver on its founding promise. Despite this failure, dirty computers are out here living their best lives. In doing so, they form part of the resistance. For in an oppressive society that denies your unalienable rights, simply taking up space and declaring your joy is revolutionary.
Just in case you weren’t feeling the revolutionary vibes, in classic Janelle Monae form, the third act of the song is a rap verse where she lays the symbolism on heavy.
Kicked out said I’m too loud.
Kicked out said I’m too proud.
But all I really felt was stressed out.
For most of CCL, we are treated to a song of pride in one’s self and one’s difference. And while Janelle enthusiastically takes us there in the song, in the rap Monae admits to the cost of that pride in the face of prejudice. She raps about the freedoms white boys have that she as a black woman doesn’t. Turns out being black American and having a crazy classic life is stressful. And so the song ends just like it begins. In melanincholy.
You told us.
On Screwed Janelle Monae with the help of cheekbone goddess Zoe Kravitz starts her march towards sexual liberation. The song does not hold back about talking sex. There are no sex euphemisms or double entendres here. Why waste the time? Screwed is literally about getting screwed, having sex, f*cking, doing the damn thang. Figuratively, Screwed is about so much more.
The song is wonderful because it exists on two planes of meaning. The first plane is the obvious, sex, wanting sex, having sex, and not caring too much about it. On the deeper plane, Screwed is about power, systems that oppress, and how we deal with that oppression. There are two ways to get screwed after all.
In classic Monae form, she goes back and forth in how she uses 'screwed' in the song. Sometimes it’s just sex:
Wanna get screwed on a holiday
Wanna get screwed in a matinee
Wanna get screwed at a festival
Wanna get screwed like an animal
Sounds like fun mixed with charges for indecent exposure.
Other times she uses 'screwed' in its secondary meaning:
And I, I, I hear the sirens calling
And the bombs are falling in the streets
We're all screwed!
The second plane of the song definitively jumps out at you in the spoken word interlude. Here, Janelle drives the double usage home:
See, everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
You screw me and I'll screw you too
Everything is sex
Except sex, which is power
You know power is just sex
Now ask yourself who's screwing you
Screwing as an act of sex. Screwing as an act of abusing your power to subjugate. Choose your own adventure.
The second time this bridge occurs, Monae does something super cool. She answers the challenge she poses to the listener. “Now ask yourself who’s screwing you.”
Janelle Monae replies:
Hundred men telling me cover up my areolas
While they blocking equal pay, sippin' on they Coca Colas
Who’s screwing Monae? Men. The Patriarchy.
Y’all this tea is hot!
The ensuing rap is about the screwing that men have done to women. Hoteps are out here telling her how to feel and Monae is having none of it. So while being screwed, the first definition, is fun and affirming, we should never forget to ask ourselves who’s screwing us. Hear those sirens, dodge those bombs that are falling before you get screwed.
A word on Zoe Kravitz aka woman with the cheek bones chiseled by Zeus himself. Zoe is a solid artist in her own right. Her band LOLAWOLF has alternative punchy songs that are the ultimate vibe. 'Baby I’m Dying' is one example.
Also, Janelle Monae knows how to team up with fellow black girl magic sorceresses and create serious bops. From Q.U.E.E.N. with Erykah Badu, Electric Lady with Solange, and now Screwed with Zoe Kravitz – leave it to Janelle Monae to crank out feminist empowerment anthems.
Finally, Screwed has one of my favorite lines in the entire album. It’s silly, yet poignant and evocative. This is Janelle Monae’s forever lane and she's always travelling in it at max speed.
We’ll put water in your guns, we’ll do it all for fun.
If that’s not a genius lyric about neutralizing power, I don’t know what it is.
NRA I hope you're listening
Django Jane picks up where Screwed ends. Literally. This flawless transition exemplifies the talents of Monae as a songwriter and album artist. The rap verses of Screwed and Django Jane are thematically two sides of the same coin. In case, listeners didn’t get the feminism in Screwed's rap verse, Django Jane comes through to finish these slow people off. With her bars, Janelle got away with murder, no scandal. She is the dirty computer with the juice who paints the city pink and femmes the future. (See what I did there? Real fans know what's up.)
The lyrics are self-explanatory, which is a central feature of rap as a genre. Speaking truth to power through flows. Monae addresses critiques she received in her career, celebrates her recent success in cinema with her starring roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, and espouses her ideas on what it means to be a black woman. The rap is highly intersectional, informative, and layered with multiple references. As a rapper, it's clear Monae has the range and it's fun to see her to unchain Django Jane and spit that black girl magi fire.
We gave you life. We gave you birth.
We gave you God. We gave you Earth.
Simply put - women are everything.
The heart, soul, and sensual center of Dirty Computer, Pynk is unabashed in its celebration of women eroticizing each other. For this song Janelle teams up again with indie-pop darling Grimes for a new wave track complete with scintillating guitar riffs and pulsating drum beats. If you haven't heard their previous collaboration, I recommend Venus Fly especially if you're into Grimes and/or funky unrelenting dance breakdowns.
From a production standpoint, Pynk’s beat accentuates the lyrics by forcing us to really listen to Monae. And dear children gathered on the porch sipping the still hot tea, Janelle came prepared to teach with these lyrics.
Pynk like the tongue that goes down, Pynk like the paradise found
I’ll let y’all surmise what the paradise is here but suffice to say John Milton would be scandalized. Janelle sensualizes the color pink till it becomes synonymous with sexual expression. And the song is moist with sex (had to use that phrase sorry). Janelle is literally screaming “yeaaaa, some like that, ahhhh some like that” by the bridge. The guitar riffs contribute to the feeling of release, and as Janelle would have it, the climax of the song resembles an orgasm. Virgnia Woolf would be proud.
Dirty Computer is a political album and Pynk is no exception. The politics of the song is self-evident in the video where we see shots of crotches with different political slogans. The video is again a master class of merging art, song, and video to make a poignant cultural critique. See APESH*T by The Carters or This Is America by Childish Gambino for other masterful examples.
The emotion picture has an extended interlude with Tessa Thompson and together they enact an intimate bedroom foreplay scene over spoken word. This footage was the most beautiful and affirming of part of the emotion picture. I actually watched the clip three times and then tried to reenact it by myself. If you're wondering, it doesn't work.
Like in CCL, its mere existence as a song makes Pynk revolutionary. We see black women attracted to each other, loving each other, simulating sex with each other. This is a partnership totally absent in popular culture. For the black girls and women questioning their sexuality out there this song is manna for their soul.
Finally, the way Monae uses pink here is masterclass songwriting. We are all pink inside, pink like the folds of our brains, pink like the lids of our eyes. We are all sexual beings, democratized by the color of our flesh. Pink is where it all starts. Pink is the truth we can’t hide.
Pink. It’s humanizing. It’s natural.
Like the love between same-sex individuals. Message heard loud and clear Monae.
Make Me Feel
Hello Prince. Janelle called and she said I’m making a record in your image and it’s gonna be a bop. Whatever club you’re hanging out in in the afterlife, be proud.
Make Me Feel is the spiritual daughter of a Prince song. And how apt on a song where Janelle freely sings about her sexual desire. Men make her feel some type of way. Women make her feel some type of way. In the video she bounces between her two love interests. And in no uncertain terms Janelle declares her identity as pansexual. Musically, artistically, she is out. And her self-expression in recent appearances have matched.
To release a song like Make Me Feel, Monae had to become truly comfortable with herself and not care about the press or public reception. The song is a product of an artist who’s grown into herself and became comfortable with not only who she is, but also what she can represent to people just like her. In the end, the anthemic nature of Make Me Feel with its unambiguous video marks this song as a true artistic and personal achievement for Janelle Monae. She is out here and in turn will inspire more dirty computers to be out here too.
I Got The Juice
This is my favorite song on the album. The song slays for multiple reasons. The beat is effervescent and instantly danceable courtesy of Pharell's sleek production. I dare you to not bob your shoulders or do secret body rolls while listening to I Got The Juice.
The lyrics are empowering - Janelle professes in multiple ways that the listener is sexy, confident, replete with juice.
Got juice for all my lovers
Got juice for all my wives (hey)
My juice is my religion
Got juice between my thighs (hey)
Now, ask the angels, baby
My juice is so divine (hey)
Ain't no juice quite like yours
Ain't no juice quite like mine (hey)
I’ll leave interpreting what juice means to the listener. Whatever juice means to you, know that you have a lot of it and that your juice is unique and divine.
Okay – so juice is equivalent of ultra-effective liquid sex pheromones and I Got The Juice is about sexual liberation and confidence. Now it wouldn’t be a Monae song if she didn’t sing about sex and then subvert it for political commentary. After the bridge she sings this fantastic lyric slash subtweet at the man who I no longer name for health reasons:
"If you try to grab my pussycat, this p*ssy will grab you back"
Art in the time of 45. Let it shine.
Finally, my favorite part of the song is the gorgeous outro, which to me is quintessential Monae and Monae at her best. We get a sonic deconstruction of the song's beat which sounds atmospheric, removed, yet still comfortable. The deconstruction doesn't stop there. Monae also deconstructs the fierce, sexually-charged confident persona she built throughout the song with the lyric:
"You can take my, take my crown, I don't want it, I don't need it.
Yea yea I got the juice. Yea yea I got the juice.
I’m a Dirty Computer"
It's clear we are dealing with a very different persona than we met at the beginning of Dirty Computer. Here, Monae's character is confident, so confident that she doesn't need her crown. Her royalty is self-evident. She also professes to being a dirty computer, but now it's without qualification, only pride.
Side note: rhis outro on I Got the Juice inspires me so much that I couldn't help but let the juice run through my veins and bust out a move for the @WahalaJr Gram.
The Rest of the Album – Hot Takes
I could give each song on this album its analytical justice, but for the sake of time (and my PhD), I decided to do more emotion based short reviews on the other stand out tracks. Here we go:
I Like That
A 'do you baby boo' anthem. The video served looks wrapped in looks wrapped in your fav could never. Her rap verse was cool in the original West African meaning of the word. To the boy who called Monae weird in math class and rated her a six – thank you! You inspired a remarkable artist who gave us a song about following your heart and not caring about what other people think. We dirty computers are gonna stay dirty, and people like you are gonna have to remain big mad.
I love the sound of this song. It’s subdued, matching the vulnerability of the lyrics. “I’m afraid of it all, afraid of loving you.” That lyric sits deep in me every time I hear it. Imagine loving someone society says is wrong, immoral, and a one way ticket to hell. This song explores that emotion. In the bridge, the trumpet breakdown with the dissociated vocals transport me to an ethereal love plane. In an album celebrating love in all its forms, this song is a reminder that sometimes that love doesn’t come easy. I'm afraid of it all. I'm afraid of loving you. Speak on it Janelle.
The last song of the album is a triumphant political statement. Monae names social ills in America and asserts herself, people of color, women, and other oppressed groups as being as American as apple pie. “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land. I’m not crazy baby, I’m American” Yes Janelle! You better claim what is yours. In the outro, the song highlights the specific ways America can do better.
The last lyric of the entire album is:
“And I’ll tell you today, the devil is a lie.
This will be MY America before it is all over.
Please sign your name on the dotted line”
Yes, the devil is a lie; dirty computers are not ceding America. It is as much ours as it is yours. This is the essence of resistance. Taking up space and saying MINE when people say NO. Janelle takes it one step further by singing "please sign your name on the dotted line". Everyone still sitting outside Janelle's porch sipping tea, we're signing our names on the Declaration of Independence.
I LOVE this ending. Signing evokes a contract, something fought for and upheld. In Americans, Monae is believing in America, asking America to do better, laying claim to America, and most importantly working to build the inclusive future she envisions.
We have the juice
Janelle Monae's 'Dirty Computer' centers black people, women, black women, queer woman, and importantly black queer women who are bravely living their truth. For many, living this truth isn't easy. Queer black women fight against three axes of oppression: race, gender, and sexuality. As a result, in our society they are often erased, their contributions misattributed, their marks in history cleaned. 'Dirty Computer' is fundamentally an album about resisting this “cleaning” and celebrating yourself. The album becomes deeply important when viewed as a queer black women's stamp on the culture. And trust, it isn't easy. Monae says it herself on Django Jane:
"For the culture, I kamikaze. I put my life on a life line."
'Dirty Computer' is a revolutionary artistic and humanizing pronouncement. The album can’t be unrecorded, nor can the videos be un-filmed. The art exists and we see in full view that dirty computers got the juice. For the culture, Janelle Monae did that.
So on behalf of the people gathered on your porch who've now finished sipping that sweet 'Dirty Computer' tea, we say thank you for putting your life on the life line. In doing so, you have breathed more life into generations of dirty computers coming after you. And the world has become a better, pynker place.
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