A decade has passed since Janelle Monáe entered the public eye as Cindi Mayweather, a messianic android who falls in love with a human and travels through time to free other androids from an oppressive regime, in her “Metropolis” album series. The alter ego represents “the other,” Monáe has said in interviews, and serves as an indirect way for the artist to address certain aspects of her identity: “being a black woman right now,” as she recently told the New York Times, and “being a part of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”
Monáe came out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone interview published April 26, a day before the release of her latest studio album and its accompanying short film, “Dirty Computer.” The funky pop jams reveal her struggles while simultaneously celebrating her sexual liberation, and she brings these sentiments to the “emotion picture” by ditching her android persona altogether. Finally, Monáe gets to be unabashedly human. She gets to be herself.
But that human life comes with its own obstacles. The 48-minute dystopian film begins with Monáe’s character, Jane 57821, in a memory-clearing facility run by a totalitarian government.
“They started calling us computers,” Jane narrates. “People began vanishing, and the cleaning began. You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all. And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time.”
“Dirty Computer” has attracted comparisons to the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in its structure, as the facility’s technicians replay Jane’s memories before clearing them. Like “Black Mirror,” its horrors are rooted in prejudice and technology. The pastel tones and retro fashion are reminiscent of the series’s popular episode “San Junipero,” which also centers on a same-sex relationship and deals with questions of consciousness.
These similarities don’t detract from how personal the metaphor is. Jane finds herself strapped to a table in the facility, forced to repeat after an unidentified voice blaring through the loudspeaker. “My name is Jane 57821,” Jane echoes. “I am a dirty computer.” She pauses here, refusing to declare that she is “ready to be cleaned.” The technicians release gas with this effect anyway, as Jane tells us later: “They drained us of our dirt and all the things that made us special. And then you were lost. Sleeping. And you didn’t remember anything at all.”
The most prominent of these “things” would be Jane’s romance with Zen (Tessa Thompson), who shows up to guide Jane through the cleaning process with seemingly little recollection of their shared past. Zen states: “People used to work so hard to be free, but we’re lucky here. All we have to do is forget,” but Jane doesn’t want to forget. We soon learn why — the duo appear happy together in her memories, as seen in the videos for “Make Me Feel,” an ode to sexual fluidity, and “PYNK,” which celebrates female anatomy and her queer identity. Both songs and their videos are part of “Dirty Computer” but were released before the album and fueled long-existing rumors about the actresses’ potentially romantic relationship. (The characters Jane and Zen also have a male love interest named Ché, who shows up every now and then.)
The relationship is a remarkable inclusion for an artist who has consistently avoided questions about her sexuality. Monáe used to say that she dated only androids, though her music suggested otherwise. As the Rolling Stone article notes, songs such as “Mushrooms & Roses” and “Q.U.E.E.N.” include references to a love interest named Mary. In the film, dirty computers whose memories have been cleared — like Zen — are called Mary Apple.
The album’s third single, “Django Jane,” includes Monáe rapping about being a black woman, another theme present throughout “Dirty Computer.” She addresses her well-known androgynous attire, which Cindi often modeled: “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish / Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it.” She calls back to the majority-black team that produced “The ArchAndroid,” her second album: “Yeah, we highly melanated, ArchAndroid orchestrated.” And, toward the end, she argues against the patriarchy often silencing women: “Let the vagina have a monologue / Mansplaining, I fold ’em like origami / What’s a wave, baby? This is a tsunami.” Monáe sits on a throne throughout much of this segment, surrounded by African imagery and an army of similarly dressed women.
“Django Jane” is an anthem on the intersection of gender and race, and one driven largely by anger. Monáe has passionately discussed these topics before. She introduced Kesha’s touching performance at the Grammy Awards this year, advocating for the equal treatment of women in the music industry. While on New York radio station Hot 97’s “Ebro in the Morning” last week, she responded to Kanye West’s recently vocalized support for President Trump by saying, “If your free thinking is used as fuel by oppressors to continue to oppress black people, minorities, I think . . . it’s not okay.”
In a February interview with the Guardian, Monáe called the song “a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other,’ and the marginalised in society — that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.”
The post-credits scene in “Dirty Computer” is equally powerful. After it is revealed that Zen has, in fact, retained her memories, she and Jane break Ché (Jayson Aaron) free from the technicians and sedate the oppressors with the gas. “Americans,” the album’s last track, plays as the trio escapes. Its lyrics remind us of the social issues that continue to pervade modern American society — racism and homophobia among them — and serve as a call to action: “Hands go up, men go down, try my luck, stand my ground / Die in church, live in jail, say her name, twice in hell / Uncle Sam kissed a man, Jim Crow Jesus rose again.”
Bold statements are what “Dirty Computer” does best. Monáe told Rolling Stone that she wants “young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you.” She is proud to be a dirty computer, and she’d like you to be, too.