Sometimes an album is released that almost all of our writers want to review, and the triumphant return of Janelle Monáe might just be the most requested yet. That being the case, Danny Wright gathered Tim Hakki and Katie Thomas to talk all things Dirty Computer.
What are your feelings about Janelle Monáe?
Tim: She’s one of the people really standing out right now. I think she has a kind of Bowie/Prince thing going on, but in this current social climate, where we’re realising things about identity at quite a rapid pace, she seems to be really exploring these issues further than many of her peers, challenging how we see ourselves in a very radical way.
Katie: LOVE her. I’m so into this Janelle that Dirty Computer seems to be about – like Jenna Wortham says in her ace piece in the NYT, this time she’s expressing her true self rather than hiding behind her alter ego. Seeing Moonlight and Hidden Figures kinda made me see her in a different light and focus on the content and the context of this new music. I think she’s a fantastic role model for women, and – I would imagine – a beacon of hope for women of colour. She’s colourful and fun and articulate and, yeah, I have a huge girl crush.
Does this record live up to your expectations?
Tim: Since ‘Django Jane’ dropped I’ve been expecting it to be brilliant. It was a great rap song in a year that’s already had an alarming number of great rap songs. So I knew this was going to be a fiercely lyrical project. And yes, it lived up to my expectations, then went one further.
Katie: Absolutely. She set the bar high with the singles but it’s definitely met that bar. I’m very excited to see the supporting visuals – if the visuals so far are anything to go by.
Does the multimedia album idea excite you?
Katie: Yessss it 100% does! I feel like JM loves Queen Bey as much as me, so here’s to the visual album! I think you can piece together a visual in your mind by listening to the record independently. But then if you take, say ‘PYNK’, it’s even more powerful when you watch it. Because, vaginas! And the celebration of fluid sexuality would not be so overt if you listen to ‘Make Me Feel’ rather than watch it.
Those videos definitely seemed to build on the themes of the record – do they all come across clearly through the album?
Katie: Yes I think so. To refer to Jenna’s piece again – there’s that distinction throughout the record of Reckoning, Celebration, Reclamation. This is a record for women, for women of colour, for anyone that identifies as female, or anyone that is marginalised in some way. It’s a very empowering record, a celebration of sex and sexuality in all its forms, and a reminder to love yourself, to be confident, and to embrace your own sexuality and sensuality. It embraces all the people that US politics is currently stamping down on.
Tim: Her agenda is really about basic human decency. Just be whoever you want to be and let others be that way too, that’s more or less what the whole album is saying. Of course there are some sexy hedonistic moments in there too. That’s where Prince fits into the recipe.
A perfect segue into a Prince question… can you hear his influence on the record?
Tim: Less so than before, I think. She’s grown into a lot of new influences now, some of the most powerful ones are her collaborators, Brian Wilson and Grimes. This felt like a sci-fi Pet Sounds, covered in harmonies and really going for more of an uncomplicated feel-good vibe than her earlier work.
And what’s the stand out track?
Katie: It’s gotta be ‘Make Me Feel’. It makes me feel good, it makes me want to dance, the video is INCREDIBLE.
Tim: ‘Dirty Computer’. Lyrically it’s such a tragic and relatable metaphor, sonically it’s more psychedelic than anything off the last Tame Impala album. Brian Wilson stepped in with Android Janelle to basically show the revivalists how it’s done… Or ‘Django Jane’ or ‘PYNK’. Argh man, what a hard question…
Finally: how important is Janelle Monáe as an artist now? Is this her stepping up to Beyoncé levels of superstardom?
Tim: I think this is Janelle stepping up to Bey levels of superstar-ness. But I’m going to be controversial and say that I think she’s pushing the envelope a little harder. Lemonade taught us it’s ok to be vulnerable but you’ve gotta empower yourself, however I feel to a certain extent Beyoncé was saying political things because the time was right commercially. Dirty Computer is subtler, and is really celebrating individuality in a unique and surprising way.
Katie: I think Janelle, Beyoncé and Solange are all putting out these complex, beautiful pieces of art that are vital right now. They’re bringing race to the fore in a brilliant way. She’s already a superstar in my eyes, at least.