So generally we don’t cover the Grammys very much here on SportsAlcohol.com except for the occasional entreaty to Maybe Just Don’t. But the Grammys do provide an awkwardly timed opportunity to reflect on the best music of an awkwardly constructed eligibility period that we will simplify to just “2018” (although, real talk: did any of us love an album that came out in November or December of last year?). And as it happens, the general consensus choice for SportsAlcohol.com Album of the Year is, in fact, nominated for a Grammy! That would be Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, which is one of this year’s eight nominees for Album of the Year. Why are there eight this year instead of the usual five? Because otherwise there might not be room for the Post Malone album, of course! (Seriously though, I have no idea. Was 2019 the year that the Grammy Olds were finally like “hey, there’s a LOT of music out there? What with the Post Malone album, et cetera”? In the words of a diffident, opaque Lorne Michaels: Why now?)
Anyway, Dirty Computer seems like the best pick in this group, though I can’t say for sure, not being the type of scumbag who listens to Post Malone. I can say for sure that it probably won’t win. But it won my heart, and I wasn’t 100% all-in on the last Monáe record, great as its peaks were. It’s funny: By slightly easing up on the concept-record trappings of Electric Lady, Monáe made… a really great concept record. I mean, this thing feels thematically and stylistically unified, but it’s chock full of bangers and doesn’t have any damn skits or enough interludes to derail it. Just at the point where it seems like this artist might well be going in every direction at once–she became an in-demand movie actor between her last record and this one, as well as a Pepsi pitchlady–she puts out an extremely focused yet also raucous and delightful album
What do you guys think? Do you agree that this is her best work so far? Or do you want to just tell me about your favorite track off Dirty Computer?
Dirty Computer wasn’t my single favorite album of 2018, so I might not be the ideal participant in this discussion. But it did make my top 20, and it was a record that I kept returning to over and over, largely because of its tricky combination of consistency and versatility. With the exception of a handful of bands (The Hold Steady, The National), I tend to gloss over lyrics when I listen to music, so I’m sure there are loads of verbose and punchy nuggets that I missed — e.g., “My random access memory wants you to come again,” woof — despite replaying the album 20-plus times. But even if you ignore the intelligence and wit of Monáe’s songwriting, her sonic fluidity is still evident, the way she can glide from anthemic choruses to electronic bridges to blisters of rap while still making the music coherent and, as Jesse said, extremely focused.
If I had to pick a favorite track, it would probably be “Americans”, because it’s a closing track that encapsulates the entirety of the record; it opens with a gospel-ish choir, transitions into some spoken-word poetry (“Uncle Sam kissed a man / Jim Crow Jesus rose again”), shifts to an undulating bridge, then finally crests with a rip-roaring chorus — “Don’t try to take my country / I will defend my land … I’m American” — that sarcastically punctures the odious rhetoric of the MAGA movement while also somehow serving as a statement of genuine national pride. But I could just as easily go with “I Like That”, which might be the record’s smoothest song despite mixing in some glitchy beats underneath Monáe’s soaring delivery, or “Crazy, Classic, Life,” which opens with a quote from the freaking Declaration of Independence before transitioning into a relatively straightforward statement of universal yearning. I also really admire “I Got the Juice”, mostly for its spectacularly direct rebuke of our Abuser-in-Chief: “You try to grab my pussycat, this pussy grab you back.”
When you guys listen to Dirty Computer, how are you listening to it? Are you diving full-bore into Monáe’s powerful (and empowering) lyrics? Or are you just letting the well-orchestrated waves of sound wash over you?
Mostly, I listen to Dirty Computer on my own, during my commute, in headphones. It sounds silly, but it does get me psyched for the day. I feel like, if you call music “empowering,” it makes it sound not really so much fun to listen to, but Dirty Computer is both.
The big exception to my solo listening experience is that last song that Jeremy mentioned, “I Got the Juice.” I play that for my daughter. Mostly, it’s because she actually likes juice. It’s silly to pour her a cup and shout, ‘I got the juice!” when I give it to her. She likes shouting it back. But I really hope she does absorb some of the other lines: “Ain’t no one fresher than you. And if they try to break you, you say, ‘Down dog — don’t think about it.'”
Then I worry that maybe she’ll absorb too many of the lyrics? But whatever. I’m sure history is littered with kids singing songs that are absurdly phallic, but I’m so used to male-centric music being the norm that I don’t even notice it. I’ve decided not to bother myself with it. Go on girl, use that sauce.
What about the rest of you? Do you get a rush when you listen to Dirty Computer, or are you in it for the Prince-like grooves?
Since you’re bringing up the Prince thing, can I just have a sidebar to say how bonkers it is that I read somewhere that it was “rumored” that “Make Me Feel” was co-written by Prince, who was a mentor/inspiration of sorts to Monáe. I mean, it’s not that the song sounds nothing like Prince; it’s that someone clearly made this connection because of the little “Kiss”-like guitar riff in the song, as if the only possible way someone could have knocked off a Prince riff is to actually be Prince himself. That would be like assuming the Haim sisters must have enlisted George Michael to write the little acoustic homage to “Faith” in “Ready for You,” or like Noel Gallagher must have consulted with John Lennon to make the beginning of “Don’t Look Back in Anger” sound like “Imagine.” It’s not just absurd because it’s possible that all three of those artists were dead by the time all three of those songs were finished. It’s also a weirdly literal reading of how influences work, and in this case also maybe a bit sexist.
That all irritates me, but on the bright side, I think it does speak to the way Monáe, like those artists, is able to synthesize her influences yet also dominate them enough so that her signature is immediately visible/audible. “Don’t Look Back in Anger” sounds superficially like the Beatles or John Lennon, but twenty-plus years later, it sounds just as much like, well, Oasis. The songs on Dirty Computer pull that off right quick — inside of a year, they already sound more to me like Janelle than any of the artists she riffs off of. And she doesn’t sound like fucking Post Malone, so. Yeah. Album of the year!