An agenda rooted in the now

DIRTY COMPUTER - Janelle Monae
DIRTY COMPUTER - Janelle Monae



Janelle Monae


4 stars

Prince may have died, but his lissome spirit lives on in protege Janelle Monae. Make Me Feel, the funky lead single from the latter's third album, Dirty Computer, slides along on a sexy synth line, which was reportedly produced by the Purple One, although not credited.

For some folk, so much about the Atlanta-based musician is shrouded in a daisy chain of accountability, shared responsibility and Afro-futurist mythology that it can be tough to sieve the musicianship from the message.

For her more patient disciples, though, her embrace of geeky intellectualism, sensuality and civic-mindedness has always set her apart from the conveyor belt of pop nymphets.

This is especially so in an age characterised by the #MeToo movement, in which Monae's advocacy for social/racial/gender equality has never seemed more contemporaneous.

Where before, previous reincarnations as the ArchAndroid and the Electric Lady (her first two albums) are steeped in a fantastical narrative, this time, her agenda is rooted in the urgency of now.

"It's reckoning and dealing with what it means to be called a Dirty Computer," she explains, referring to the racial and sexual slurs hurled at women, black people and the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex and allies) community.

In Make Me Feel, she claims her sexual right: "It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender/An emotional sexual bender."

In I Got The Juice, she was apparently inspired by surrealistic collage artworks by African-American artist Wangechi Mutu to whip up an ode to femininity. "Now, squeeze all that passion fruit/Ain't no one fresher than you," she raps, as Pharrell Williams provides backing vocals.

Canadian pop star Grimes joins Monae in PYNK, a "brash celebration of creation" and "p***y power". It's a come-hither robo-pop ballad (accompanied by a viral music video), as both singers join in the finger-snapping chorus: "Yeah, somethin' like that."

Whereas PYNK is soft-sell, Django Jane is a straightforward rap jeremiad. Against industrial thumps and atmospheric synths, Monae rattles off a series of scenarios where her sex and AfricanAmerican community have been trampled on. "Remember when they used to say I look too mannish/ Black girl magic, y'all can't stand it/Y'all can't ban it, made out like a bandit," she declares.

More plain-speaking than elsewhere, she goes for the jugular in the glorious scuzzy-guitar-slicked-up rocker Screwed, inspired by a quote by writer and activist Gloria Steinem, about the results of the 2016 United States presidential elections.

Teaming up with actress-singer Zoe Kravitz, they go all out like the music equivalent of Thelma and Louise, renegade sistas on the run. "Let's get scr*wed, I, I don't care/We'll put water in your guns/We'll do it all for fun," she sings, half-joking and half-not.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline 'An agenda rooted in the now'. Print Edition | Subscribe