Part of why losing Prince still hurts so much is how timely his vision feels at this exact moment; and nowhere is his spirit more alive than in the work of Janelle Monáe. She’s birthed a label and cultivated a likeminded artist roster at Wondaland, her Paisley Park-styled creative basecamp in Atlanta. And on her latest LP, Dirty Computer, she weaponizes Prince’s fluidly radical pop-funk spirit for a new power generation, targeting oppression on various intersectional fronts. Released in tandem with a film of the same name (like Purple Rain) and with music that engages with apocalyptic politics without undermining the party (like 1999), it’s a pop-culture salvo that’s rooted in the present while recognizing and building on the past. In its own way, its as artful, ambitious, determined, joyous and inspiring, as Lemonade or To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a sexy MF-ing masterpiece.
The backstory suggests that in the months leading up to his death, Monáe consulted with Prince regularly on the Dirty Computer project. He may not have co-writes, but his influence is plain: the echo of “Let’s Go Crazy” in the preacherly intro to “Crazy, Classic Life” and the kinetic mandate of “Americans”; the steely minimalism of “Kiss” conjured in the guitar flourish opening “Screwed” and the beat architecture of “Make Me Feel.” But other names connected to Dirty Computer tell a wider story. The title track opens with the unmistakable harmonies of Brian Wilson and the time-warp synth magic of Jon Brion, two generations of pop scientists who situate things in the American Dream-scape of Southern California – an excellent sci-fi pop setting, as French ex-pats Daft Punk (another uncredited influence here) might tell you. Even Stevie Wonder, another Monáe fan, turns up on the spoken word interlude “Stevie’s Dream.”
Other collaborators connect Dirty Computer to the best of pop’s now: Grimes brings vibes on the deliciously softcore “Pynk,” tagteaming off Aerosmith’s “Pink” with an amusingly Taylor Swiftian pre-chorus (its liner note credits also shout out “Kali, Sheela Na Gig, Isis, Sheba, Athena, Medusa, Mary … Vagina by Naomi Wolff, Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann and the calligraphy of Sun Ping). “I Got the Juice” features kindred spirit Pharrell; it’s a tasty ode to secretions and personal power that nods to Kelis’ Neptunes-produced “Milkshake” while declaring “this pussy grab you back.” Kendrick Lamar cohort Thundercat turns up alongside Wilson on “Take a Byte.” Other current A-list pop co-writers here include Taylor Parks, Julia Michaels, Justin Trantor and Mattman & Robin.
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But unlike most of the collective pile-ups cluttering the pop landscape these days, the songs feel steered by a single sure and distinctive vision. Monáe co-writes everything here but for a couple of interludes, with strong assists from her Wondaland wingmen the Irvin brothers (Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder). The album’s narrative arc – one of specifically queer, black and feminist empowerment, while allowing broader readings – mirrors that of the YouTube-posted “emotion picture” Dirty Computer, an album-length film that collages its dystopian sci-fi tale with video clips of the album’s best songs. It includes most of the aforementioned tracks, as well as “Django Jane,” a contender for the year’s defining rap single, with its ferocious flow and David Axelrod sample, delivered on screen in an echo of vintage Public Enemy with gender-fluid 1960s Nation-of-Islam costume design. The album, like the film, ends with “Americans,” an all-in anthem of inclusivity with a chorus declaring “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land.” It’s revolution as a birthright celebration for all Americans who are down with genuine equality and, worthy mini-movie notwithstanding, you don’t need pictures to hear its truth.