In a Rolling Stone cover story this week, Janelle Monáe responded to longstanding speculation about her sexuality and came out as pansexual—or, in her words, “a free-ass motherfucker.” Her transparency has been well received, particularly in a climate of backlash and hostility toward queer people of color. But if the article had come out a day later, it may also have been redundant, as Dirty Computer, Monáe's third album, is her most unapologetically carnal and overtly queer to date.
Unlike 2010's The ArchAndroid and 2013's The Electric Lady, Dirty Computer isn't part of Monáe's Metropolis saga, a series of loose conceptual suites starring her tuxedoed android alter ego Cindi Mayweather. Instead, she's singing—and often rapping—as herself, with lyrics drawn directly from contemporary intersectional feminist discourse. “We gon' start a motherfuckin' pussy riot or we gon' have to put 'em on a pussy diet,” Monáe crows on “Django Jane.” She bemoans “men tellin' me cover up my areolas while they blockin' equal pay” on the glittering synth-pop cut “Screwed,” and taunts Donald Trump on the Latin-flavored “I Got the Juice”: “If you try to grab my pussycat, this pussy grab you back.”
Monáe's new lyrical directness is appropriate for the times, though it can be hard not to miss the musical and conceptual scope of her past efforts. After two sprawling psychedelic Afrofuturist hip-hop operas, a mere 14-track, 45-minute album feels modest by comparison. And while the songs here are consistently hooky, they lack the earlier albums' sonic adventurousness. Rumors had swirled that Prince co-authored lead single, “Make Me Feel,” but the actual co-writing and production is credited to Swedish pop craftsmen Mattman & Robin; Prince's input, Monáe's collaborator Chuck Lightning told Rolling Stone, was mostly limited to helping them select the right synthesizers for an authentic '80s Minneapolis sound. This, frankly, makes more sense: “Make Me Feel” is a rock-solid funk jam in the “Kiss” vein, but its surgical precision lacks the spontaneous genius of the Purple One at his best.
In shedding her science-fiction persona, Janelle Monáe has ended up making a great pop album.
While Monáe's heart is in the right place, her lyrics occasionally suffer from the clumsiness endemic to politicized pop. The spoken coda for “Screwed” is ideologically sound but kind of a mouthful: “Everything is sex/Except sex, which is power/You know, power is just sex/You screw me and I'll screw you too.” Closing track “Americans” makes a strained attempt to write from the perspective of a right-wing caricature, with lines about women in the kitchen and “defending my land”; it's redeemed, at least, by a sprightly gospel-pop arrangement indebted once again to Prince, in this case “Let's Go Crazy.”
If Dirty Computer feels somewhat blunter and less ambitious than Monáe's earlier work, though, it's also her most immediately satisfying. The languid “Don't Judge Me” is the sexiest Monáe has ever sounded—a fitting accompaniment to her more sexually liberated identity. Other tracks, like “Pynk” and “Take a Byte,” are art-pop songs as catchy and boldly intellectual as anything on St. Vincent's critically acclaimed Masseduction. And while her more baroque tendencies are mostly reined in, there's still an audacity to the album's construction; she roped in Jon Brion and Stevie Wonder for cameo interludes, and recruited Brian Wilson to harmonize on the title track. In shedding her sci-fi persona, Monáe has ended up making a great pop album, and a rallying call for “free-ass motherfuckers” everywhere.