At a time when “gender fluidity” is the term bandied more freely than “pussy grabs back,” Janelle Monáe has seemed to remember that she is first and foremost a singer before an actress. Though one might have momentarily forgotten that after her double threat roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures in 2016, it’s easy to be reminded of who Monáe was before Hollywood from the opening notes to “Dirty Computer” featuring (in one of many sonic curveballs) Brian Wilson. As the manifesto designed to shed her former image as an impervious android space goddess, the title track shatters this former notion with the lyric, “If you look closer you’ll recognize I’m not that special, I’m broke inside/Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me.” But for someone suddenly so open about admitting to her imperfections, insecurities and contradictions, Monáe comes across as more assured in her artistry–both visual and auditory–than ever before (on the visuals front, “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel” were only precursors to the memorable “PYNK” and duality-oriented “I Like That”).
Still, she remains a mass of inconsistencies, which is precisely why the title of the second track, “Crazy, Classic, Life,” is the most fitting for her often unclassifiable, “pan” persona. With the same sound and intonation as “PYNK,” Monáe maintains that there remains a place for the concept of the American dream despite how blatantly it’s been shattered post-2016. Under the tenet, “Make America Great Again,” Monáe is the sort of gender-bending entity to be feared the most–just as Prince was in the Reagan-dominated 80s. But, as Monáe reminds, “I am not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream”–proof that androgyny is attractive. With this sentiment in mind, the seamless transition into “Take A Byte” finds Monáe returning to her android roots to robotically tantalize, “Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can’t pretend/Oh, what a surprise/Maybe it’s lust, maybe it’s love, maybe it never ends/Play in my hair and nibble there all on my mocha skin/Yeah, just take a byte.” She could be talking to anyone, really, for, like Prince, Monáe doesn’t discriminate, especially when it comes to women. Well, except those women who contributed to the melancholic morning of November 9, 2016, prompting Gloria Steinem to lament, “I’m just tired of being screwed, and being screwed by my friends.” Ergo, the title of track five, “Screwed,” featuring Zoë Kravitz as they throw back women’s voting choices in their face by declaring, “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down/Let’s get, let’s get screwed/I, I don’t care/We’ll put water in your guns/We’ll do it all for fun/Let’s get screwed!”
The subsequent thematic trifecta of “Django Jane,” “Make Me Feel” and “PYNK” makes for one of the strongest points on the album, which is why it’s only natural for the spike to dip slightly with the Pharrell Williams collaboration “I Got The Juice” in terms of lyrical content. At her most Gwen Stefani-sounding, Monáe mainly repeats, “I got the juice” a lot. Though it is admittedly pretty funny when she warns, “If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back (hey!)/This pussy grab you back/Give you pussy cataracts (hey!).”
“I Like That” continues to address that, in her current, most honest incarnation, Monáe has no concrete answer to who she “is.” It rather mimics the Marina and the Diamonds song, “Can’t Pin Me Down.” Of course, “I Like That” is more in reference to what she likes sexually, as well as shading those who once wrote her off suddenly praising her as she scoffs, “Even back then with the tears in my eyes, I always knew I was the shit.” Sometimes, it just takes a while for other people to see what you already knew. Either that, or it just takes a while for your so-called “weirdness” to become chic.
Further addressing the subject of being constantly judged by outside forces wanting so desperately to classify both her and her sexual orientation, “Don’t Judge Me” is Monáe at her most vulnerable as she expresses, “Even though you tell me you love me, I’m afraid that you just love my disguise.” For it took a lot of courage for her to shed that “cybergirl without a face” image to show us this, herself.
To be redundant, the dreamy “Stevie’s Dream” is an interlude featuring the mellifluous spoken voice of Stevie Wonder as he soothes, “Even when you’re upset, these words of love/’Cause God is love/Allah is love/Jehovah is love/So, don’t let your expressions, even of anger/Be confused or misconstrued/Turn them into words of expression/That can be understood by using words of love.” This segues into the contrastingly titled “So Afraid,” a rumination on the fears of inadequacy, of not being enough–whether for the world or another person, male or female (and anyone in between). 80s-inspired riffs as the song reaches its crescendo also and once again harken back to The Purple One, whose musical stamp is all over this record like urine.
On the final song, “Americans” (someone make a mashup with Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” please), an intro monologue that mirrors the signature Prince opening, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” leads into Monáe ripping off practically riff for riff the portion of “Let’s Go Crazy” that chants, “Let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts” with “I like my woman in the kitchen/I teach my children superstitions/I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand/A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes/But she’ll never ever wear my pants,” continuing the rhythm throughout as she, in a surprise move, proudly declares, “I’m Ameri-can.” But the sentiment behind it refers to what this word–this classification–used to, at least in theory, mean: “Liberty and justice for all.” Of course, the fine print to that has always been: “Liberty and justice for all white men.” Hence, Monáe chooses to implement an MLK-esque voice to remind, “Let me help you in here/Until women can get equal pay for equal work/This is not my America/Until same gender loving people can be who they are/This is not my America/Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head/This is not my America/Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful/This is not my America/I can’t hear nobody talkin’ to me.” Well, that’s not entirely true. Monáe can still clearly hear Prince talking to her from beyond the grave to imbue her music with his influence.