YAKIMA, Wash. — Anticipation levels for the new Janelle Monae album “Dirty Computer” had been off the charts around here since it was announced, and even before that. In the intervening years Monae ventured into film, and “just happened” to land in two Oscar-nominated movies on her first and second tries.
Her taste in picking projects and her talents in delivering them were clearly intact, but I was looking forward to new music with an intensity that almost felt selfish.
Remember those carefree days of 2013? What couldn’t be papered over could at least be ignored, or so it appears through jaundiced 2018 eyes.
A Janelle Monae record (taken on average) covers a lot of ground: some R&B, a little hip-hop, guest appearances from a diverse crowd including such disparate artists as Of Montreal and Big Boi from Outkast, but all of that blended together under a guiding narrative.
I don’t know if her previous albums have been nominated for any literary science fiction awards, but they certainly could have been (and now that the album “Splendor & Misery” by Clipping was up for a Hugo award, perhaps future albums will be). But times have changed, and if you’re expecting “ArchAndroid Suite V,” well, this isn’t that, exactly.
Where those first two records were each divided up into two parts, and lasted over an hour, “Dirty Computer” clocks in at a relatively tight 49 minutes, and the music sounds a little more focused as well, though any given song can still turn at an unexpected angle: “Cue the violins and the violas,” she commands at one point.
If the present age requires more forceful responses to the events of the day, this album feels recalibrated accordingly.
“Dirty Computer” is still in the science fiction mode, but a lot of the concealing metaphor has been stripped away. Issues of personal identity, especially sexual identity, are front and center, but the album isn’t quite a Barry White-style bedroom jam, although I suppose that depends on the bedroom; sexual politics are politics, too, and this is in many ways a political record, a response to troubles internal and external.
On one hand, it all sounds pretty airy and fun, and in that way it reminds me a little of the most recent Grimes record, which also embraced pop music in a pretty heavy way. Though I suppose the better comparison here is Prince, who was responsible for at least a couple measures of music on this album before his death, and whose support and friendship Monae has talked about quite a bit in the course of the album’s promotion.
Prince remains a bit of a blind spot for me personally, but his skill at producing music released to wildly popular acclaim while still being fundamentally his own thing would seem to be a good starting point to understanding this record sonically.
“Dirty Computer” is a definite evolution for Janelle Monae, musically and especially lyrically, and though I can’t help wanting a few more rococo flourishes in the margins, that’s partially because I simply want more of it.
• Simon Sizer is the legal and obituary clerk at the Yakima Herald-Republic. He’s constantly prattling on about music, so we gave him this column.