UPDATE: Janelle Monae will release her 44-minute short film Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture By Janelle Monáe on MTV and BET on April 26th, one day before the release of her new album Dirty Computer. “Dirty Computer is a near-future story that takes place in a totalitarian society,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I play a citizen, living life, finding love, being myself in a society where that makes me an outlaw, something ‘dirty’ that the society needs to get rid of. I think it speaks to where we are right now, and what we’ve gone through recently as black millennials, and as women, and as Americans.”
In 2007, Janelle Monáe arrived here from another world. A self-proclaimed android dressed in black and white, she could emulate Prince’s rubbery funk, Stevie Wonder’s synth-laden soul and the Jackson 5’s sugary R&B, while somehow retaining the festive Southern bounce of her Atlanta base. In the 11 years since, Monáe has forged a distinct path in music, fashion and film.
Across several releases, including 2010’s The ArchAndroid and 2013’s The Electric Lady, Monáe has maintained an air of mystery, crafting intricate worlds built around science fiction. She’s also become an accomplished actress, starring in the Oscar-winning Moonlight and the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures; on the smaller screen, especially in her recent video for single “Make Me Feel,” the polymath tackles real-world issues within her own imagined universe.
On April 27th, Monáe is set to release her third full-length, Dirty Computer. Aside from the release date and the record’s first two singles – “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane” – intel on the album’s creative direction has been scarce. Here’s what we know about the LP so far, and some speculation on what to expect.
Dirty Computer promises to be Monáe’s most personal album to date.
When Monáe released “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane” in February, she foreshadowed Dirty Computer‘s progression from her previous work. “I actually had this title … before my first album The ArchAndroid,” Monáe told Beats 1’s Zane Lowe, “and it scared me because a lot of the things that I knew that I needed to say were very deep, very personal, from the heart. … This is an extremely vulnerable album and it took me a while to make it because I’m a self-editor.” Perhaps empowered by her notable big-screen appearances, Monáe’s new album promises to shed light on her story in a way that nothing else has.
The album might contain the strongest Prince tribute we’ve heard since his death.
Since the Purple One’s death in April 2016, a slew of artists have tried to imitate his music in some way (and let’s not forget Justin Timberlake’s ill-advised tribute during the Super Bowl LII halftime show). Despite the intent, artists not named Monáe, Bilal or D’Angelo haven’t been able to capture the truest essence of Prince’s work: the silky synth chords and raw Minneapolis soul of 1999, Purple Rain or Sign o’ the Times. Yet judging by “Make Me Feel,” Monáe’s attempt might be the closest yet. This sexually liberated jam goes right back to 1986 Prince, evoking the style and panache of “Kiss.” Even the video, which stars Thor actress Tessa Thompson, feels set in the 1980s, down to the eccentric, colorful outfits which dotted the landscape at that time.
In a since-deleted post on Facebook, Prince’s DJ, Lenka Paris, said that the late star actually helped Monáe create “Make Me Feel.” “Roughly 2 and a half years ago I played this little party for Prince, and at one point he goes: Stop the music, I wanna play something,” Paris wrote on the social media site. “He opens his computer and plays a groove. It was futuristic and so so good. He gave that to her.” In an interview with BBC Radio, as reported by Consequence of Sound, Monáe said she and Prince had been working on the album when the icon passed away. “I really miss him,” Monáe said, “it’s hard for me to talk about him.”
“Django Jane” is a diss record aimed at the haters.
And a strong one, too. For the first time ever, Monáe takes time to do a little stunting: “Already got an Oscar for the casa/Runnin’ down Grammys with the family/Prolly give a Tony to the homies/Prolly get an Emmy dedicated to the highly melanated.” On the surface, “Django Jane” feels like a bold step away from Monáe’s previous output, which featured tinges of rap, though never this overt. Ultimately, though, the trap-rap song feels like the natural next step for Monáe; she’s not abandoning what brought her to the dance, but given her credentials, she can afford to shit-talk. “Box office numbers and they doin’ outstanding,” she says at one point. “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish.”
The album will be accompanied by an immersive “emotion picture.”
In the trailer that announced Monáe’s new album, the singer alluded to a narrative film that might accompany Dirty Computer. In it, we see flashes of what appears to be a motion picture – or an “emotion picture,” as Monáe calls it – that features actress Thompson in various scenes. There’s also a hovering car. As is usually the case with Monáe, there’s no telling exactly what the film will entail. But if her track record is any indication, the finished product will be an esoteric yet rewarding visual feast.
Sexual liberation will be a key theme.
Over the course of her career, Monáe has faced inquiries about her sexuality. Up to now, she’s kept that part of her world private, only saying that she’s “sexually liberated.” The video for “Make Me Feel” speaks to such liberation. “It’s a celebratory song,” Monáe told The Guardian. “I hope that comes across. That people feel more free, no matter where they are in their lives, that they feel celebrated. I’m guilty feeling like I can’t just be … like either it’s this or it’s that, it’s black or it’s white. But there’s so much grey.” Still, the world has changed a great deal since Monáe’s first LP in 2010; back then, the dialogue surrounding LGBTQ issues wasn’t so prevalent, and a film like Moonlight – an LGBTQ film with a black director (Barry Jenkins) and an all-black cast – probably couldn’t have won an Oscar for Best Picture. The video for “Make Me Feel” alludes to such liberation: In the “Make Me Feel” clip, we see Monáe beguiling both a male and female companion.
Space is still the place.
Along with Prince, Stevie and Michael, Monáe seems to take cues from legendary cosmic-jazz pioneer Sun Ra, the legendary cosmic-jazz pioneer whose lush, skronking soundworld nodded to life on other planets. Working from the mid-1950s to his death in 1993, and witnessing firsthand the height of racial tensions in the United States, Sun Ra was a staunch Afrofuturist who thought true peace for black people existed in outer space. Monáe has always explored the cosmos through her art, and on “Django Jane,” she doubles down on this aesthetic.
Her videos highlight the nuances of black culture, celebrating its power and dignity without apology or regret. With “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel,” Monáe promotes a sense of unity and strength, looking toward the outer limits with the same verve as Sun Ra. The timing seems right for Monáe’s latest epic: Superhero film Black Panther – which is full of Afrofuturist themes – has grossed more than $1 billion in the worldwide box office. The film’s success proves that mass audiences are ready for sci-fi stories centered around black people and black culture. Just the thing Monáe has pushed for all along.