Nearly a century ago, the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote one of his most abiding works, “We Wear the Mask.” Much of the poem’s heat springs from its opening stanza, which plays like a confession eager to break free. Of the disguise so many black Americans choose to wear, he writes: “It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes / This debt we pay to human guile / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” Conspicuously enough, the poem is about the price of false identities, of the veils people graft onto themselves out of fright, or survival, or merely cowardice. Over the years, Dunbar’s poem has found unusual resonance in the music of Janelle Monáe, who until the release of Dirty Computer—her third full-length album, out today—performed behind the mask of Cindi Mayweather, a genderless cyborg from the future.
In a batch of recent interviews, the Kansas-born, Baptist-reared chanteuse confessed to fearing judgment if she abandoned the android persona—a guise many people believed had become a convenient cover for her rumored sexuality as a queer woman. “I felt like I didn’t really have to be her,” Monáe says of herself in the New York Times Magazine, “because they were fine with Cindi.”
Over time, Cindi came to represent a rejection of a more open, fluid womanhood fans hoped Monáe might tap into. Her acting roles, in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, portrayed a vulnerability and gentle fire that her music decidedly sidestepped; the disparity made her musical self feel more engineered, aesthetically and emotionally. Yesterday, though, she did away with the mask altogether, telling Rolling Stone that she’s pansexual. On “Crazy, Classic, Life,” one of Dirty Computer’s earliest songs, Monáe summons her release. “I am not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream,” she sings without a sniff of apology or the terror of intolerance. “Just let me live my life.”
When the 32-year-old Monáe began making and performing music in the early aughts, she felt troubled by how inorganic and dull R&B often sounded on the radio. With enthusiasm and enterprise, she leveraged the banality of mainstream artistry to her advantage; the result was her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), an orchestral and riotous earful about exodus, persecution, and forbidden love.
Monaé's subsequent full-length releases (she refers to all her albums as “emotion pictures”), 2010’s The ArchAndroid and 2013’s The Electric Lady, were forceful studies in pop art. They wrapped the singer in an indistinguishable veil—someone who wasn’t quite human, a tuxedo-clad cadet with an affinity for intergalactic funk and earthly soul rhythms. She sang of lost intimacy (“Can’t Live Without Your Love”) and state oppression (“Violet Stars Happy Hunting”), of the rise and fall of Afro-utopias (“Neon Valley Street”). Monáe’s was wilful acceptance as sign and symbol, an intergalactic talisman in the mold of an Octavia Butler heroine.
If those first two albums found Monáe reckoning with the industry’s trite algorithm, a challenge to its withered sounds, Dirty Computer finds her in a more revolutionary light: contending with herself, sans the pretense and pageantry of Cindi Mayweather. Gummed together by a suite of songs with a rowdy punk essence, the 14-track project homes in on micro- and macro-indulgences, on the complicated and uncomplicated joys of modern life.
To call what Monáe does "R&B" feels both limited and wrong; technically, the music is canyons wider than a single category will allow. What she’s chasing is much more elusive. It’s emotion telegraphed as camp; theater made into post-art. Sexually fertile, Dirty Computer is an album for the here and now, a feminist sound sculpted not by conquest but by discovery. “Just take a bite, go on and help yourself / It’s alright, I won’t tell,” she sings on “Take a Byte.”
Sexually fertile, Dirty Computer is an album for the here and now; it’s a feminist sound sculpted not by conquest but by discovery.
Still, for an album stuffed with inspiration—according to Monáe, her canvas draws upon Monica Sjöö’s ur-goddess text The Great Cosmic Mother; Quincy Jones; Bible verses such as Genesis 9:20-27; the title character of The Bluest Eye, Peecola Breedlove; and her mentor Prince—it’s slight on features. Cameos span Grimes, Pharrell Williams, Zoe Kravitz, and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. There’s also soul vanguard Stevie Wonder, on the interlude “Stevie’s Dream,” bestowing advice to all who will listen. He strings together the album’s many pieces, from the utopian erotica of “PYNK” to the operatic desires of “Don’t Judge Me,” into a single theme. “Even when you are upset,” he says, “use words of love, because God is love, Allah is love, Jehovah is love.”
Love that’s liberated. Love that doesn’t submit to hate. Love that rises and rises and rises. Love that loves no matter what gender or size or color. That is the place Monáe has been trying to access all these years through her music. What, then, must it feel like to finally see that person in yourself, and to let others recognize your beauty, your originality, your black queer spirit? In an album replete with statements, where god is a woman and men-led regimes are systems of a bygone age, this is Dirty Computer’s most courageous one: love can be an oasis, if you let it.
That’s not to say the prick of judgement and self-tyranny don’t afflict the mind. Monáe still struggles with these tremors, though now she’s more than willing to wrestle with them publicly. “I’m afraid of it all, I’m afraid of loving you,” she confesses on “So Afraid.” The world is changing, and she with it.
The great tragedy and confusion of Monáe's career has been her inability to access the pop pantheon, her inability—whether through fluke or failure—to become a true crossover hit. For so long she masked her fierce individuality behind a copy-and-paste android persona. How heavy that mask must have felt. How lonely she must have been. If Dirty Computer, and the sea of treasures it’s certain to wash ashore, tells us anything, it’s this: all Monáe ever needed was to be herself.
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