Janelle Monáe has continuously surprised audiences as one of the few true chameleon artists of our generation, and her latest LP shows her range stronger than any previous release. Bringing in commentary about America and womanhood across her cosmic soul energy, Monáe channels the greats while charting her own course. While she can sometimes let her message override the musical experience, there’s enough talent flying across this record (and the mini companion film no-less) to show that Janelle Monáe is one of the artists that will be taking over the world.
With light Beach Boys undertones, the R&B grooves of “Dirty Computer” roll out while Brian Wilson’s harmonies dance through the background. Though it’s a theme more than anything, it sets the album up with a heavy hand that gets listeners intrigued. After an empowering speech, “Crazy, Classic, Life” finds Monáe skewering the rollercoaster ride that people dream of in life while trying to stay grounded. Though it tends to lean into a more generic energy as it plays to the accessible fantasy of fun, Monáe makes the song memorable in her rap bridge.
The 80s swell of “Take A Byte” lets its funky grooves really set it apart as an outlier in the world of digital sounds. Much like its lyrics suggest, the track is a wonderful rhythmically-driven piece that speaks to escaping robotic tendencies. This little groove seeps into the “Jane’s Dream” as things cross over into something more soulful. That energy is punching out on “Screwed” as Monáe and Zoe Kravitz party together while lamenting the trappings of life. Hearing Monáe take her brash lyricism to such excess feels wonderfully honest and makes her party energy feel human and fun.
“Django Jane” rides a hip hop beat as Monáe’s aggressive flow flips the macho rap energy right back at men. Surrounded by her trippy production, the track finds Monáe landing as not just one of the most intriguing soul artists around but rappers as well. Grimes production is infectious on “Pynk” and makes for a wonderful complement to Monáe’s already digital overtones. The track’s sparse approach does demand a lot of patience however as it really only opens up in its final rock-borne swells.
Monáe channels Prince in not only her melodies but swagger on “Make Me Feel” but quickly defines her own sound in the song’s massive bass hits. With infectious grooves and sultry vocals, the song is immediately catchy and really becomes explosive when Monáe lets the beat drop. An immediately addictive beat comes out on “I Got The Juice” as Monáe’s in-your-face delivery rides the tropical vibe of the song. Pharrell’s subdued energy on the track leans into the understated flow of the album as Monáe really commands her audience, and gives one of the best respsonses to Trump over a year after the election.
Though “I Like That” is really too simple for its own good a lot of the time, it really carries a strong emotional energy in its choir chorus hooks. Despite this monotony, Monáe brings a playful energy in her vocals that only gets more dynamic as the song goes on, and gets vicious on her rap break. It takes “Don’t Judge Me” even longer to hit a fun spirit, though its little riffs that drop throughout the track will likely make you grin. Even as a very samey track for the record, it at least brings enough majesty to feel like a part of Monáe’s world.
In a light ode to Stevie Wonder, “Stevie’s Dream” floats like a warm and welcoming shift into the album’s final stretch. “So Afraid” is one of the darkest monologues of the album, as Monáe brings a hauntingly real reflection of the modern world. In its epic production however, it never really takes off enough on the musical side to match its statement. “Americans” however matches this majesty as Monáe closes the record with another hefty Prince groove and a story about trying to survive in America’s dangerous police climate.
Words by Owen Maxwell