Just how freaky is Janelle Monáe? Many of the Atlanta pop visionary’s lyrics tackle that mystery, but her most telling answer might be in her 2013 single “Q.U.E.E.N.” “Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?” she asked. “And am I weird to dance alone late at night?” As listeners shimmied along, solo or en masse, the question resolved itself: No, Janelle, you’re not weird at all.
Monáe’s muse is nonconformity, but almost more as a concept than a practice. Which is not at all to say she’s a normie—a normie wouldn’t wear “vagina pants,” or rap over a woozy blend of doo-wop and folk, or release a 45-minute-long “emotion picture” with her album. But rather than radiate the true inscrutability of her mentor Prince, she glorifies the way that everyone, at some point, can feel like an outcast. Her music conducts modest experiments under bright lights, and if the songs ask to be thought of as Frankenstein creatures, they are happy, healthy, well-adjusted ones.
Dirty Computer, her third album, is pleasingly warm and punchy from front to back. ’80s new wave and ’90s pop rock inform the palette more than loungey R&B, as it was on her 2010 masterpiece, The ArchAndroid, or spaghetti Western sounds, which marked 2013’s rangy The Electric Lady. Prince, as always, looms large too: “Kiss”-like guitar jangles emerge on the punkish rally of “Screwed” and amid the sphinxlike grooves of “Make Me Feel,” while the caffeinated and clever “American” reads as a “Let’s Go Crazy” tribute. Most impressive is how Monáe successfully balances competing ideas like an A-student juggling her extracurriculars. She’ll morph into a glowering rapper for short spurts, and her choruses often mark the moment when funk grind gives way to something flightier, freer, and ecstatic.