Janelle Monáe recruited stars from the worlds of indie (Grimes) and hip-hop (Pharrell) to contribute to her new album Dirty Computer. But the very first collaborator that appears on the LP is none other than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
“Do you know how much of an honor it is to have him on [the title track]?” she tells Rolling Stone. “I am such a Beach Boys fan.”
The Monáe/Wilson summit is a sunny slice of cooled-out funk. Wilson’s backing vocals kick in almost immediately: His voice is the second sound you hear on “Dirty Computer,” singing high, dreamy, instantly recognizable harmonies. A rim-shot backbeat and limber bassline push the song gently forward. “If you love me, won’t you please reply?” Monae implores. “Can’t you see that it’s only me, your dirty computer?”
Monáe knew she wanted Wilson on Dirty Computer early in the album’s creation process. “I was researching the Beach Boys, [and] I found out that the reason why their sound was so quiet, and their harmonies were blended but they were soft, was because they didn’t want to wake up their parents,” Monáe explains. “They were secretly recording softly so they didn’t disturb their parents, and I just thought that was so cool.
“[After making that discovery], there was nobody that I thought that could sing those backgrounds [on the song] but Brian Wilson,” she adds. “I tracked him down and … let him know what I was doing.”
Wilson tells Rolling Stone, “I was thrilled she asked me to sing on her song.” He calls Monáe “a real talent,” adding, “I love the melody on this track and the harmonies very much.”
Wilson was the first guest to contribute to Dirty Computer. “Once I had Brian Wilson, I would reach out and be like, ‘Yeah, so, Brian Wilson’s a part [of the project],’ and people were like, ‘Oh, yes!'” Monáe said. She also enlisted Jon Brion, a writer/producer with credits on Kanye West’s Late Registration and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, to help with the album.
Monáe suggests that collaborators wanted to work on her album as a way of hitting back against the tide of racism and xenophobia that followed President Trump’s election in 2016. “I think people were like, ‘Yeah, I went to lend my gifts and my talents to helping fight against … oppression and … really support you, as a black woman, and what you’re trying to say’,” the singer said. “And although that may not be [their] experience, [they] empathize.”
“It was important for me to have voices like Brian Wilson and musical arrangements from Jon Brion [on the album],” Monáe adds. “They both were big fans of my work and when they told me that, I was just smiling ear to ear.”
Additional reporting by Brittany Spanos