If there’s anyone who can make a song called Dirty Computer work – featuring resplendent Brian Wilson harmonies and lines such as ‘the bugs are in me’ or, er, ‘text message God up in the sky’ – it can only be Janelle Monae.
And in fairness, she’s earned every right to it. Playing the long game with her early EPs and character of Cindi Mayweather, Janelle Monae has committed to a sound and a vibe that has culminated in this pop – and very much pop – album. It’s still Monae’s brand of pop (quirky, melodic, with a sense of futurism) but it’s more mainstream-ready than ever before. And it’s that prior goodwill that seems to have people blithely accepting what is, essentially, a very mediocre offering from a total superstar.
Lead single Make Me Feel is still, of course, the calling card for this collection and a raucous explosion of kinetic energy. Strangely, Monae sounds more youthful than she has before, songs like Crazy, Classic, Life buttressing her with synth as she goes a bit Benjamin(a) Button. It might be the adherence to pop that does that for her: I Got The Juice (with Pharrell) makes her sound like a different artist, as does the Zoe Kravitz-featuring Screwed. And not necessarily in a good way.
There’s a feeling that these songs are too slight for the artist behind them, too breezy in their sound and production and centring too much on that mainstream sound. Take A Byte sees her attack that a bit too plainly, leaving us with a song that doesn’t really give us the charm and charisma we’ve come to expect. Similarly, a song like Screwed doesn’t really register its sex-positivity as strongly as it seems to think; in fact, none of the writing sticks until Pynk and Americans, which emerges as a rollicking but searing cut-down of her countrymen (“A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes/ But she’ll never ever wear my pants”).
The album does work when Janelle Monae adopts a couple of different suits. Django Jane is like we’ve never heard her before, raw and angry in a way that lands so much better than every other song around it. Similarly, Don’t Judge Me brings out the heartfelt and tender side in her voice, a treatise on insecurity that even someone as strong as Monae can make believable. More of that and this could have been her next masterpiece, but for now it’s merely an enjoyable pop album from someone who should have given us something unforgettable.