Hail, hail: black nerd icon Janelle Monáe’s new album of sound and vision, Dirty Computer, is out.
It’s dope, and different. It’s the freest she’s ever sounded, the grooves riding deeper, stronger. Her music knocks like never before.
The music of Dirty Computer is sexy, and sexual. Furthermore, in the singles and videos leading up to the album’s full release, the sexuality on display didn’t feel all that hetero, either.
All we had was feels and intuitions in that regard, until Janelle came out publicly as queer in Rolling Stone this week. “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 motherfucker.”
When I saw the news across my Twitter feed, I thought “good for her” and “it’s about time.” Her music and aesthetic have read as queer for quite some time, and it’s great to see her express her full truth and full self now. The run-up to Dirty Computer, with her shift in music and style, felt as if she were building up to some great revelation.
Janelle declared we were going elsewhere once the video for “Make Me Feel” dropped. Full of color and sexual tension, Janelle arrives at an underground club with Tessa Thompson and then is caught between a man and a woman while singing about being “powerful with a little bit of tender / an emotional, sexual bender.”
Just like that, a spring bop is a bisexual anthem, winding down the path of Demi Lovato’s “Cool For The Summer.”
Then there was “Pynk” and its accompanying music video. Forget a pussyhat, she’s got pussypants! I MEAN, JUST PUT IT ALL OUT THERE FOR US, WHY DONCHA?
Amid all the music, we’ve also seen a change in Janelle’s, as they say, lewks. Colors, patterns, bold makeup, elaborate hairstyles, and nearly every stitch of femme clothing you could imagine.
I posted to my Facebook page, back on April 13: “Notice how the more queer Janelle Monáe’s music gets, the more colorful her clothing?”
Janelle does have a new stylist, by the way: Alexandra Mandelkorn, who has been working with her since November. The black-and-white scheme of suits has bloomed into color and a wide array of high-femme-with-a-twist-or-five.
I’m not the only person to notice the sartorial shift accompanying this new music. Mandelkorn said as much to Mic: “I think that she is definitely going through a transition of change and those inklings had already begun with this album.”
The song and the video are celebratory and affirming of black womanhood, because that is Janelle’s steeze. (Catch the single “Django Jane,” which feels like it combines the themes of Beyoncé’s “Formation” with the style of collaborator Jidenna’s “Chief Don’t Run.”)
“Pynk” as song and video also extol femininity and female genitalia, vulnerability and openness. And they go beyond boasting to a place more sexualized, with references to cunnilingus and same-sex desire. A line-by-line reading of the song could be an essay in of itself, with lines such as “pynk, where it’s deepest inside,” “like the walls and the doors” and “like your tongue going ‘round.” She spells the title word with a Y, as in “dining at the.”
It’s downright Prince-ian.
The title Dirty Computer alone tells you, referencing the Purple One’s “Dirty Mind” and “Computer Blue.” And in the first singles, Janelle is much more sexual in lyrics and the music itself, which contains sexy Prince hallmarks: bopping bass, finger snaps, cutting guitars, throbbing synths.
Prince is a strong influence on Janelle. They were friends, they performed together on her last full album, 2013’s The Electric Lady, and we’re finding out he also had a hand on Dirty Computer. Now two years since Prince died, it looks like we’re finding out more fully what Janelle picked up from him on her path of self-actualization.
Of course, Prince flouted gender norms in his own music and fashion. In “Controversy,” he famously sang, “Am I straight or gay?”
With all the not-quite-heterosexual content in Janelle’s new work, some folks had been wondering if she’s coming out in some way. I could only shake my head and chuckle to myself when people saw the “Make Me Feel” video and were all, “Wait, is Janelle gay?”
Both before Janelle came out and after, it didn’t exactly matter for you to know.
However, thematically, you could queer-read her music for quite some time. Janelle has given off a not-exactly-hetero vibe for the longest (she’s been on the scene for 10 years now!), with the sci-fi android material and her overall style.
In the Cyndi Mayweather android character, you had themes of body modification, replication, possession, and a creature having emotions she’s not supposed to have. These themes played right alongside her ideas of Afrofuturism and a black body that can be remade, repaired, reprogrammed. An interlude on The Electric Lady has a dude shouting, “Robot love is queer!”
“Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu, from that same album five years ago, was the clincher for me. That sexy jam is fierce about throwing out respectability politics while giving name to those who get left out by them, including queer people, all set to a bangin’ beat extolling how “the booty don’t lie.”
I think Janelle, in this Dirty Computer visual album (or “emotion picture,” as she calls it), is getting over the thing folks knocked her music for, herself included. A recurring theme was that her music was too much of a cerebral exercise, even when it wanted to get down. (For example, the coda of “Q.U.E.E.N.” drops the funk and goes into speechifying over Marvin Gaye-style strings, and it doesn’t quite work.)
These new songs get into your body in a different way than her previous stuff, even though I enjoy it all. My body rolls to these new jams.
Don’t think Janelle has left her old aesthetic behind, though. The description for the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” calls the film the story “of a young woman named Jane 57821 (Monáe), who is living in a totalitarian near-future society where citizens are referred to as ‘computers.’” We’re just getting more of her. The android turned out to be flesh and blood, after all.
Janelle sounds more like herself than ever on Dirty Computer. This week, she let us know more of who that self is, how that self is living. Good for her. And good for all of us, too.
I wasn’t personally interested in knowing where Janelle sits on the Kinsey scale, and I didn’t care to play the who-is/who-isn’t rumor game. I did care, however, that folks get to live out their full potential, all their options as they so choose, and that the most people get represented fairly and are treated with value.
Janelle has been about that ethic for a long time. That ethic is one that everybody could use, but marginalized people in particular (people of color, queer people, queer POC, etc.) because they are so underrepresented and undervalued. If Janelle had anything to come out about, it would only bring more light to that ethic and her fans who believe so much in her.
I know that the themes in her music, her fashion, her overall bearing and politics, have meant so much to people – especially queer people, women of color, and queer black women more pointedly. I’ve seen it in my friends. I’ve read it in their words. I’ve heard it in the hoots, hollers and finger snaps in spaces at Brown RadicalAss Burlesque’s Compost Bin show in Brooklyn, when the first strains of “Make Me Feel” came on during a routine.
For these women, Janelle’s coming out must feel especially good, a coalescence of knowing glances, intuition and belief into the flesh and bone of incontrovertible fact. A void of minerals and elements massing together until the atoms fuse as a star is born, a flame in the darkness that will burn for eons.
And I’m happy now to witness this panoply of blackness, of queerness, of femininity, of humanity exulting in full, loving humanity – all done through really dope music, to boot.
Before Janelle Monáe came out this week, Dirty Computer still felt like a culmination of something personal for her, as a sexually liberated woman, and in relating to us her own sexuality. Now, it feels good to name a truth once and for all. Representation matters.
If Janelle hadn’t come out, that would have been OK, too. It’s not for me, or any of us, to know, if she didn’t care to say. If there even were anything to say.
The bottom line remains the same, out or not. Janelle Monáe is making music that is just like herself: real, beautiful and rockin’.