Album Review: Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer”

Multi-genre singer/songwriter Janelle Monae released her fifth album in the spring entitled “Dirty Computer.” Along with the album, she released an “emotion picture,” a 45-minute visual album and futuristic film. This album is a continuation of Monae’s motifs of androids, technology and dystopian plots. The film itself is packed full of allusions and references to film, history and theory that academics are starting to analyze deeper. Monae has risen to stardom in recent years and stands out for her feminist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-capitalist lyrics and strong ability to switch between genres easily. “Dirty Computer,” like her other albums, follows an android-driven plot about a future where humans are labeled computers and wiped of their memories and love if they’re deemed “dirty.”

The film shows Monae in the roll of Jane 57821, a rebel who just wants to have fun but is marked as dirty and therefore must be tamed. Two men are instructed by a robotic voice to erase the memories and dreams of Jane, a plot device allowing interspersed music videos. The audience is invited into Jane’s memories and aspirations in order to understand her character and the oppression in this futuristic world. The memories show her and her friends dancing, her romance with a woman and a man, being chased by cops and abstract thematic visions of Monae.

Although the plot of memory erasure seems like a handy tool to show music videos, the lyrics and motifs of the songs pull the film’s message together. Monae’s message of freedom, oppression, love and expression are clear. Unlike her previous albums, which mainly feature story lines from an android named Cindi Mayweather, “Dirty Computer” allows Monae to use a version of an android closer to who she is as a person and artist. The film features Tessa Thompson as one of Monae’s lovers, an actress rumored to be dating Monae in real life. Thompson’s character appears in Jane’s personal and intimate memories, but back in current time, it turns out she was wiped of her memory and is now a cog in the machine working to help clean the dirty computers. The film also features personal anecdotes from Monae’s life in the songs and passionate verses about black activism and feminism.

Towards the end of the film, Jane 57821 is supposedly “cleaned,” and turns up to erase the memories of her former male lover, starting the cycle again. After it seems all hope is lost and the credits start to play, we’re surprised with a different ending of escape and freedom. Monae’s decision to end the film in a positive light ties back to her messages of freedom and a hope for a femme black inclusive and loving future.

Monae has credited her love for the film “Metropolis” (1927) as an inspiration for her android focused plots, which is especially obvious in her first studio album of the same name. She uses androids as a mechanism to safely talk about much larger issues of discrimination and worries of the future and to show who she is and wants to be as an activist, artist and queer black woman. In an interview with the London Evening Standard, Monae said,
“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other.’ You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman…what I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am.’”