Reckoning, Celebration, and Reclamation: Janelle Monáe Dissects 'Dirty Computer'

Everyone’s favorite android moved from the 2700s into today’s troubled world for her most recent album. Here’s why—and how—she did it.

Part Zero: An Introduction

Janelle Monáe is sitting on her throne. This is true in a figurative sense, of course. “If she the G.O.A.T. now, would anybody doubt it?” she asks on “Django Jane,” the boastful, rap-heavy song that served as one of the introductions to her latest album Dirty Computer. But Monáe is on a literal throne as well: sitting in Complex’s Studio 3 on a regal chair that mirrors the one in her “Django Jane” video (or at least as close as our hard-working video team could find on a few days’ notice).

Monáe is here to discuss Dirty Computer, the album and accompanying 48-minute “emotion picture” that is her response to a troubled world. Rather than couching her ideas in 28th century science-fiction garb, as she has before, Monáe brought her concerns to the present (or, in the emotion picture, to the near-future of the 2090s). She wanted to let her listeners know that what she calls “dirty computers”—people who are made to feel like integral parts of their being are bugs and viruses—can band together, find love, and fight back.

Dirty Computer is, Monáe says, broken up into three sections. The initial handful of songs make up the Reckoning (“This is how I’m viewed. I’m a ‘dirty computer,’ it’s clear. I’m going to be pushed to the margins, outside margins, of the world,” she told the New York Times). The middle section is the Celebration (“It’s like, O.K., these are the cards I’ve been dealt”). At the very end, there’s Reclamation—that is, reclamation of American identity. It’s a realization that, as the album’s final track has it, “I’m not crazy, baby/I’m American.” Appropriately enough, those are the themes we stuck to in our interview. But first, we talked a little bit about the album more broadly, her experiences living in Complex’s home base of New York City, and how a silent film from 90 years ago started everything.

View this video on YouTube

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I want to hold up a quote and I was hoping you could read it to me.
“There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as the mediator.” That’s from Fritz Lang’s 1927 German Expressionist film Metropolis.

What does that line mean to you?
The film inspired pretty much all of my work and it inspired me to want to be the heart, to be the mediator between the mind and the hands; the high class [and] the low class; the have-nots and the haves; and use music to bridge that gap and to bring us together.

Since you’re in New York City, I wanted to jump back to when you lived here. You were in school in the city for about a year and a half studying musical theater. How did that training prepare you for what you’re doing now, which is essentially putting out a new musical with every album?
I enjoyed all of my time at the American Musical and Dramatics Academy. I grew up acting and singing and writing and going to after-school Shakespearean programs. It was my dream to come to New York, and I’m so happy I did. I learned so much about reading music, and dance and technique, in terms of acting and my delivery as a performer. It also let me know that I did not want to tell other people’s stories. I had a story to tell.

One of the tricky things conceptually about Dirty Computer the emotion picture and the album is that in some ways, it’s a prequel to your earlier work. What was challenging or surprising about writing a prequel?
I had the concept and the title of Dirty Computer before I released [her 2010 debut album]The ArchAndroid, so the albums are connected. It is sort of a prelude and there are little Easter eggs in the visual. If you watch the Dirty Computer piece online, you’ll see Mary Apple [played by Tessa Thompson]. I have a song on The ArchAndroid called “Mushrooms and Roses” that talks about a character named [Blueberry] Mary, and she shares DNA with this Mary Apple. It’s all related. It’s connected.

Part I: Reckoning

As Monáe mentioned, the concept of the “dirty computer” is one she’s been thinking about for a while. The idea became all the more relevant in recent years, as forces of hate, prejudice, and division gained power across the world. The 2016 election, in the singer’s words, “sped up” the release of her album. An artist ever-focused on life centuries from now was dragged by circumstance back to today.

When talking about Dirty Computer, you’ve said, “Those of us who live in the future are sometimes needed in the present.” So much of your work has been focused on the future. What do you think being so focused on that in your creative life helped you express when you came back to the present? What did you see that other people might not have?
One of the things that’s important is that I’m aware of what’s going on now. I did have the tendency to always think about what the next project was or what else I can do. It’s like, “No, we have to pay attention to what’s happening here, right now.” I like to go where I’m needed. I wanted to celebrate the marginalized, and those folks that I felt needed the most amplification of their voices because they were not being heard.

I’ve read three or four different supposed inspirations for a lyric in “Screwed”: Everything is sex/ Except sex, which is power.” So I wanted to ask the source. Where did that line come from?
That particular quote was inspired by Oscar Wilde. [Ed. note: The quote “Everything in human life is really about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” is attributed apocryphally to Wilde] I put my spin on it because I wanted to support what it was that I was trying to get across: “You fuck the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down.’ I just thought it was a clever wordplay.

I read that line, “You fuck the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down,” was something you said in the heat of the moment maybe seven or eight years ago, and filed away?
It did start with something that I just said casually. It was a reaction to my bus being dirty. The whole band and crew, we were all sharing one tour bus. I hate to say this, but I was on the bus with a lot of men. I’m not gonna say all men are dirty, but I will say that the guys I was on a bus with, and I love them dearly, they were just living la vida loca.

I came on the bus, and if you know me, you know I cannot sleep in a dirty space. It just overcrowds my mind. I only wear black and white, for crying out loud. Maybe it’s an OCD thing, I don’t know. I just came on the bus and I saw banana peels and underwear and it was crazy. I said, “You know what? Whoever fucked this bus up, y’all better fuck it right back down.” They laugh at me to this day when they think about me coming on that bus and saying that and seeing how serious I was, and I didn’t even realize what it meant. It’s something that we laugh about all the time, and I felt like it applied to our current state of affairs.

I said, ‘You know what? Whoever fucked this bus up, y’all better fuck it right back down.’

One of the things in the emotion picture that grabbed me was the use of drones as the first line of law enforcement. Can you talk a little bit about why they play that role in the movie?
Dirty Computer is near-future. Right now, we are dealing with drones. I was in a hotel recently and I saw a drone hovering over my window. It was really, really scary because I had never experienced it. Then I saw drones when I was at a plaza. I saw them going over the plaza, and I was just like, “What is going on?”

It’s a question that we have to ask ourselves around surveillance as a form of oppression, or surveillance also as a form of protection. Is it good? Is it evil? Is it invading privacy? It’s something that I have not fully settled on yet. I’m still forming my opinion on it.

Part II: Celebration

Dirty Computer is not by any means solely, or even mostly, a somber meditation on the ills of today. It is a frequently joyous record, particularly in the middle “Celebration” section. This is borne out in Monáe’s live shows, where she, her band, and a slew of backup dancers turn an arena into what the singer frequently calls “the church of the Dirty Computer.” The show not only runs through much of Monáe’s catalog, it also pays tribute in ways both overt and subtle to the history of black music in the 20th century, from Cab Calloway to James Brown to Michael Jackson to Monáe’s mentor Prince.

You were in a dark space when writing this record. How did you make an album that is so celebratory and hopeful?
Well I would say that some of it is dark. I wouldn’t say that everything is. I think darkness is important so that you can appreciate the light. Balancing all things is something that I live by.

As much as this album is about me, I wrote it during the Obama era and then things changed [laughs], and I felt like I needed to create a sense of community for folks in these marginalized groups. At the concerts, when they listen to the music, I want them to feel proud and celebrated and seen and heard.

When you were making this album, you said, “I had to really think about who I wanted to celebrate and who I was okay with pissing off.”
I chose to focus my energy and my time on celebrating the folks that I felt needed it most. Just to name a few: my brothers and sisters in the LGBTQIA community, black women, minorities, immigrants, lower class, working-class folks like my parents who worked as janitors and post office workers and trashmen. I wanted to focus on celebrating those voices that are not represented in the media as much as I’d like. I wanted to figure out how I could create a community and a safe space for us because honestly, when I take off my makeup, I take off my clothes as an artist and the performer Janelle Monáe, I fall into those groups. That’s my reality and that’s how I grew up, and I want to protect us.

View this video on YouTube

One of the first voices you hear on the album is Brian Wilson. Why have him sing harmony on the title track? What relationship does that song have to the Beach Boys, and to “In My Room” specifically?
I’m a huge Beach Boys fan. I remember listening to “In My Room” and loving the tone of their voices, and then seeing this documentary where they talk about the reason why their harmonies were so soft and low was because they were trying to hide recording from their parents in the house.

When I was writing “Dirty Computer,” I knew that this was an introspective song and I wanted you to really be in the mind of a Dirty Computer, me—what it meant to be, for the first time, reckoning with how the rest of society views you. I felt like his voice was going to be perfect to help tell that story.

View this video on YouTube

“Celebration” is the middle section of the album, and I wanted to talk about some of the people you celebrate artistically. When you perform, you do a mashup of “Make Me Feel” and James Brown’s “I Got The Feelin’.” Can you talk about why you connected those two songs and what James Brown means to you as a performer and as a dancer?
As a performer, James Brown is one of my favorites. I studied him and his movement. When I was making “Make Me Feel,” I could feel his presence when I started to perform it. It wasn’t until I started to perform that I started to connect the two and it just had a groove. It was like me and James were talking to each other, going back and forth through dance. I wanted to make sure that when you came to a live show, you saw us having that conversation.

This past weekend, I went to see a documentary about Betty Davis, who meets anyone’s definition of a free-ass motherfucker. Do you feel any connection to Betty?
I love Betty Davis. She’s free, and she’s one of the godmothers of redefining how black women in music can be viewed. I respect her a lot and she’s opened up a lot of doors for artists like myself.

View this video on YouTube

The “Pynk” video’s now-famous pants were originally inspired by David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane-era bodysuit. And there are a couple of characters in the emotion picture who have Bowie-inspired looks. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about David Bowie—his look and his music.
David Bowie is, as an artist, so interesting to me. The world that he built out inspired me to build out my own world, as well. It let me know that I didn’t just have to be a singer. I didn’t just have to be an actor. I could mesh both mediums and tell stories.

You can tell stories through fashion, and I just wanted to tell the story of—some people call them labia pants, some people call them vagina pants, some people call them flowers—but I wanted to celebrate women. There are some women in the “Pynk” video that don’t have on the pants, because I don’t think that you have to possess a vagina or a labia to be a woman. We tried to think about that and be sensitive to it, and I think that Bowie has inspired not just me, but so many artists with his work and with his vision.

There are some women in the “Pynk” video that don’t have on the pants, because I don’t think that you have to possess a vagina or a labia to be a woman.

The Stevie Wonder interlude “Stevie’s Dream” is a brief but very important part of the record. Do you think that with this album you’ve succeeded in doing what he asks in that segment, which is to express anger using words of love? Do you think that’s even possible?
Stevie Wonder is not only my musical hero, but he’s like a godfather to me. I started out writing [the album] during the Obama era and then things just changed, and I had to be honest to where I was mentally after November 2016. I was just very angry. I was angry for a lot of different reasons, because I love this country like so many.

I went to go talk to him, and this is a man who got Dr. King’s birthday to be a national holiday. He has been on the front lines. He has done so much behind-the-scenes work. He spoke to me and he just wanted to remind me that I needed to be patient, that we needed to be patient and we didn’t need to give up hope. But it was important for me to lead with love. It’s a difficult thing. It’s difficult. I’m working on it. I don’t know if I’ve mastered it, but I’m working on it. I’m a work in progress, and I think it’s great advice.

View this video on YouTube

There are lots of great vocal moments on the album. One that stands out for me is the final chorus of “So Afraid,” where you go up an octave and it sounds impassioned and strained. Can you tell me about recording that moment?
“So Afraid” was a song I wrote when I was on the way to the dentist. I had a throbbing toothache and I had just taken some Advil and I had driven myself to an emergency dentist appointment. I had my voice memo by me and at every stoplight, I would just record different melodic ideas and I would record myself talking about things I was afraid of, my fears at that moment.

Then when I got to go sit down in my dentist’s chair, my dentist was taking too long—and I love my dentist, shout-out to him, he’s amazing. I had my mouth [held] open, and I was singing the chorus like, [sings with mouth open] “Ah ah ah ah ah.”

I just remember wanting that voice memo of me sounding like that to be on the actual song. So I ran to the studio afterwards. I called Nate Wonder and I told him, “This is how I want the song to be produced. I want to make sure that the thing you pay attention to most is my voice, and the fear that you hear in my voice and the yearning. I don’t want to sing it too high starting out. I want the first verse, first chorus, second verse, second chorus, I want all of that to be low, like an octave lower than what I would normally sing. And then when I just can’t take all of the fears that I’m experiencing, when I’m about to blow up, literally—because I’ve had moments like that—I want that octave up to represent an explosion.”

Part III: Reclamation

View this video on YouTube

“Don’t try to take my country,” goes the chorus of the Dirty Computer closer “Americans.” “I will defend my land.” It’s a line that has roots in one of the song’s initial incarnations, from the point of view of a white male Southerner who is confused and upset by all of the dirty computers around him.

But in its present incarnation, in the album’s “Reclamation” section, it represents something else as well. It’s the determination of Monáe not to give up on her homeland, despite its often-vicious treatment of the people she holds dear. “Love me, baby,” she pleads. “Love me for who I am.”

In “Django Jane,” you talk admiringly about black artists like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker and Saul Williams who “fled to Paris.” At the end of the album, you make a different choice. You say, “I will defend my land.” What made you decide to end the record on that proclamation? Why is it important to be American?
“Americans” is in the Reclamation section of the album. The Reclamation is about reclaiming what is ours. My ancestors helped build the White House. We helped build so much [with] our blood, sweat, and tears. These are my ancestors, people like my grandmother and great-grandmother. I wanted it to be clear that we have no intentions of running as Dirty Computers, but staying right here and reclaiming what’s ours.

That song originally had a different spin on it. Can you tell me about “Southern Man?”
I wrote like three different iterations of “Americans.” One of them was called “Southern Man.” I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and it was inspired by some of the Southern white men that I encountered. They really felt like they were superior and this was their country, and we were just here. I was trying to speak from their perspective in hopes that when they listen to how they sound, they would realize that in fact, it was very divisive and, quite frankly, stupid.

Is there any of that left in the version we hear?
Yes, there are lyrics that I left from “Southern Man” in “Americans.” I wanted to make it more inclusive with the different perspectives—you have the folks who are just clinging to their guns, clinging to their bibles, using their bibles as a whip, believing in superstition. You have so many different kinds of Americans and I was trying to make it as inclusive as possible.

The final words of the album are, “Please sign your name on the dotted line.” Can you give us any insight on that?
The lyric can mean a couple things. It’s like, “I’ve expressed to you as an American from my perspective the things that are going on. Are you ready to commit yourself to this country? Are you ready to come over here and really be a citizen at this moment in time?” It also could mean a continuation of what is to come for Americans in the future.

Do you have a message for all the Dirty Computers of the world, for the people who are made to feel defective?
My message to Dirty Computers who are made to feel defective, to feel like they’re bugs and they’re viruses, are negatives and need to be deleted and need to be reprogrammed, is to know that there’s nothing wrong with you. Your features are your bugs and your viruses. They’re attributes. They add value to this society, to this country, to your communities. Continue to lead with love. I hope that with this album and with this emotion picture, you feel more seen, you feel more heard, you feel more celebrated—and continue to be free-ass motherfuckers.

Latest in Music