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Janelle Monáe Strips The Hardware For Humanity

Janelle Monáe is the past, present and future.
Courtesy of the artist
Janelle Monáe is the past, present and future.

Janelle Monáe is fully basking in her freedom. As a 32-year-old singer-songwriter with more than a decade in music under her belt, Monáe has made a career out of being an artistic chameleon. But her latest album, Dirty Computer, undoubtedly proves that playing the role of yourself is the most satisfying part.

From pansexual proclamations and Afro-futuristic lewks to paying homage to Prince and eloquently purging political statements through rose-colored lenses, Dirty Computer — both the album and what she calls an "emotion picture" — is a heroine's journey set to a symphony.

To mark what may very well be the artist's magnum opus, Pilar Fitzgerald, Sydnee Monday, Anastasia Tsioulcas and I reacted to and analyzed Monáe's new art in real time. (Remember when experiencing new music was a communal exercise?)

-- Sidney Madden

Sidney Madden: Dirty Computer, the emotion picture, opens with Janelle as a robot or a woman and in a sterile-looking facility. She's lying on a table while technicians are wiping out her 'memories.' Each corresponding music video either represents a memory or dream Janelle has. What are your first impressions of the film?

Pilar Fitzgerald: There's a lot of robotic vs. humanity vs. something in between at play here.

Anastasia Tsioulcas: Those steampunk helmets at the beginning are pretty rad.

Sydnee Monday: She's getting reprogrammed?

Sidney Madden: Reprogrammed or brainwashed — "My name is Jane 57821. I am a Dirty Computer. I am ready to be cleaned."

Pilar Fitzgerald: She's always played around with black and white, so all this use of color in the music videos — her "memories" — feels really significant. The scenes from "Crazy Classic Life" are like an underground queer dance Mount Olympus.

Sydnee Monday: The soundscape of "Crazy Classic Life," though! A summer mood. What are you getting from the black and white, Pilar? Or I guess the lack of it.

Pilar Fitzgerald: I associate her black and white with Janelle's Cindi Mayweather/Android persona, and so the use of color in this — it feels like she's coming alive.

Sidney Madden: The use of technology in these videos definitely reminds me of something out of Black Mirror. The fact that drones act as spies and police to break up their fun and alert masked soldiers to take them away is one of those science-fiction-soon-to-be-science-fact type of folkways. So the themes of the film seems to be dystopian future, and sexual freedom and suppression?

Sydnee Monday: Yeah. And Tessa Thompson playing a worker in the reprogram facility named Mary Apple is related to Janelle's past albums. The Mary Apple character has been present in Janelle's work for a bit so I'm glad I can actually see the character in a film.

Sidney Madden: Oh, what has Mary Apple meant before?

Sydnee Monday: She's been the love interest in projects past if I remember right. Janelle's been playing the android character for so long in her music, and onscreen. I'm obsessed with the episode of Electric Dreams where she plays a robot that looks like a human based on Philip K. Dick's writing.

Sidney Madden: I like how even though this is set in the future, there's a bit of '80s pop sheen to songs like "Take A Byte" and "Screwed." I'm feeling how this is futuristic but also nostalgic at the same time.

Anastasia Tsioulcas: The beats and instrumental harmonies on "Take A Byte" are straight '80s.

Sydnee Monday: Janelle Monae is the past, present and future. You heard it here first!

Anastasia Tsioulcas: "Screwed" just might be the most 2018 song on the album, and almost the most political, but for sure it's the most nihilistic. Think about its topics: 1) the idea that life — and maybe one's sense of self — only exists if it's reflected in a magazine or on a screen ("I live my life in a magazine / I live my life on a TV screen") 2) anxiety and impending doom (2018 for everyone) and of course "Sex is power" — an idea which has already launched thousands of gender-studies classes and builds upon a quote that is popularly attributed, but probably never actually said, by Oscar Wilde: "Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power."

Sidney Madden: Preach!

Anastasia Tsioulcas: The whole end, which I hear as criticism of the current administration — except for that "hotep" line. Wonder whom she's got in mind?

Sydnee Monday: I'm glad that line is there — because so often black women are made to feel like we have to choose one identity over the other. She's both a woman and black and, of course, considering those identities and how they intersect.

Sidney Madden: The transition from "Screwed" to "Django Jane" is so seamless.

Pilar Fitzgerald: Reminds me of the transition from "Q. U. E. E. N." into "Electric Lady" on her last album. Smooth af.

Sydnee Monday: "Tuck the pearls in just in case the world end" — I love that line with this imagery especially.

Anastasia Tsioulcas: There are SO MANY good lines in "Django Jane."

Sidney Madden: Stark contrast between "Django Jane" and "Pynk." "Pynk" was the most popular video out of the ones she's released leading up to the album.

Pilar Fitzgerald: This song is so much more bubblegum pop than anything she's ever done. TBH I didn't know how to feel about it at first because it was so different. "Django Jane" to "Pynk" is pretty jarring. The songs are sonically disconnected, her voice effect change between the two is noticeably drastic. And, to be honest, I didn't know how to feel about "Pynk" when I first heard the song.

We've established how much Janelle is experimenting with herself and song styles in this album, and "Pynk" almost felt like too much of a stretch from the Janelle we've known these many years. But thinking about it more, between the two songs, Janelle has displayed her full womanhood, both ends of the spectrum from loud and all-mighty to soft and coy. And so that stark contrast feels so necessary given the purpose of the greater album as a whole.

Sydnee Monday: Yes, I think the visuals really made me appreciate this song more.

Pilar Fitzgerald: The cinematography for this video is super tight. But honestly, I've never identified with the color pink, but that song has me all about it. There are so many shades of pink to appreciate.

Anastasia Tsioulcas: In "Pynk," those panties that say "I grab back" — that's a line from another song on the album, "I Got the Juice," I think. Every. Thing. on this project has been so fully thought out!

Sydnee Monday: We mentioned these ideas on gender she's bringing up, the idea of "sex is power." I'm glad she tweeted about the representation, too.

Sidney Madden: Each one of these "memories" seems like a happy Black Mirror episode.

Sydnee Monday: Yes! "San Junipero" is the episode I was thinking of.

Sidney Madden: I like the narrative aspect of seeing these videos back-to-back. There's another seamless transition into "Make Me Feel."

Pilar Fitzgerald: This is the Prince song! His influence shines through.

Anastasia Tsioulcas : That synth, those syncopations, those chromatic melodic descents, those punctuations of guitar chords ... it's all there.

Sydnee Monday: Can I live in this reality? Or have a coat that looks like Tessa Thompson's in "Make me Feel"? lol

Pilar Fitzgerald: This is the pansexual anthem!

Sydnee Monday: Yeah, I just want to keep thinking about her quote to Rolling Stone about coming out as pansexual: "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 motherf*****."

Sidney Madden: Fun fact — after Janelle came out as pansexual in her Rolling Stone story, "pansexual" was the most-searched word on Merriam Webster that day.

Sidney Madden: "I Like That" is my favorite song from her album so far.

Pilar Fitzgerald: She's always been a very good rapper — it's so great seeing her lean into it.

Sidney Madden: Spoken word vibe, acoustic guitar — I've never heard her like this. Have y'all? She's rapping a lot on this album. Do y'all think she can hold her own as a rapper?

Sydnee Monday: I think it's her lyrics too! This song is clearly so personal. I feel like she's rapped before, but the flow is different.

Pilar Fitzgerald: Yup, she's always had bars, but it's always been a verse here and there. "Django Jane" is the first time I think she's rapped a whole track. And the flow is definitely more punchy, more confident. I'm thinking of the easy, laid back smooth-talking Janelle on the end of "Electric Lady."

Sidney Madden: Listening to "Electric Lady" to "Django Jane," her flow has definitely improved.

Sydnee Monday: What do you like more about it?

Sidney Madden: With "Django Jane," I feel like she really intended on rapping. She's displaying her message in a poetic, rap way. The message of "Django Jane" is so direct and piercing that it had to be delivered in the package of a rap. When she's broken down in raps before, I've kind of tuned it out because it seemed like she was just trying to do something even if it didn't fit the song.

Let's talk about the "memory" on the beach. She's kissing both her male and female partners. Live out loud, Janelle!

Pilar Fitzgerald: It's all so interesting how personal this love story is. Despite years and years of her only ever saying she "only loves androids." The memories are painting a whole new picture of Janelle for me.

Sydnee Monday: Yeah, I'm thinking about how human this project is even though we're in this alternate sci-fi reality.

Pilar Fitzgerald: A dirty computer is synonymous with a human. Janelle is a dirty computer. Janelle is a human. Our little android is growing up and growing into herself <3

Sidney Madden: Seems she's materializing everything she's wanted to do on past albums.

Sydnee Monday: Yes and affirming that often really difficult action for the rest of us.

Sidney Madden: The last song to end the emotion picture — where they're escaping to freedom — is called "Americans."

Pilar Fitzgerald: This orchestra is pulling at my heartstrings. She's always loved a good orchestral interlude.

Sydnee Monday: She's breaking free! Janelle literally televised the revolution, OK!

Pilar Fitzgerald: I love how you hear and see Prince's influences all over this album. Prince is in the instrumentation, he's in the choreography, he's in the visuals. She clearly felt a responsibility to honor his legacy. And I have to assume his sexual freedom helped her find her own.

Sydnee Monday: In that way, his legacy is still healing a lot of people with this representation and I love how Janelle's will be linked with his.

Sidney Madden: You think Prince's passing has inspired her to declare her sexual freedom now more than before?

Pilar Fitzgerald: For sure! She aspires to be a role model like he was for queer people. And sees it as her responsibility now more than ever in this political climate.

Sidney Madden: The representation aspect to this is so key.

Pilar Fitzgerald: She carries the torch so beautifully and so authentically. More carefree black women just living in their full color please!

Sydnee Monday: I think Janelle's sexual freedom is so connected to political messaging for me — like through all of this turmoil in the story, her flow is assured, her visuals are strong. There's pain, but there's no fear.

Sidney Madden: Closing arguments?

Pilar Fitzgerald: I've always been a fan — a fandroid — of Janelle and her body of work, and this certainly does not disappoint. So fitting of her to make a film, considering all her recent on-screen success. She's always been an amazing spectacle and storyteller. Since this is the ~*~emotion picture*~*, if there's one emotion to describe how I'm feeling, it's pride. Her unbridled authenticity is a wonderful thing to see.

Sydnee Monday: I am so inspired by this idea of getting free and pushing past fear and the importance of this representation. In her interview with Hot 97, she says she hopes that black women feel seen, heard, and celebrated, and I did and I'm so thankful for her presence, especially in the midst of all the world's chaos.

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Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.