The relationship between album single and track-order is an interesting one. A band like Weezer smacks you in the mouth right away, generally with their second single, which is a little bit slicker than their first single (“Thank God for Girls” -> “California Kids”). Beyonce’s lemonade was ingeniously rolled out, it’s back-end burner “Formation” getting the world hyped without revealing the stories of infidelity that would dominate the front half of the master work. The you have the classic Janet Jackson strategy: single=title track; title track=first proper album track.
Queen of future everything Janelle Monae dusts off old moods and puts them in 2050, all perfectly DJed together in a flowing, effortless manner and her single strategy was wildly good here.
First, a pair of tracks. “Make Me Feel” is a perfect single–perfect for Monae, this album and otherwise–its vocal pops and gluey bass line turn whispers giant. It’s f-bomb in the chorus is perfectly suitable for fast summer driving and fuck boy disregard. Simultaneously released “Django Jane” was a bit less immediately exciting, a rap track that we would later find out is an outro. With a monster in the 8 slot and the slightly more tame “Jane” at 6, perhaps the album is front-loaded with slow burns, then things get hype. “Make Me Feel” could be an outlier in a righteously militant protest collection.
Then a surprise. Single number two’s floating Grimes-featuring production comes in at 7. A queer-femme anthem with more genre ambiguity than anything else Monae’s almost ever released, this delicate track comes in at 6. The gender of it all is intriguing, first masculine coded sonics with a vagina monologue, followed by full frontal femininity, capped off with an impossibly fluid touchstone. (Not to mention the complete outlier status of smooth single “I like That” in the 9 slot).
What does it mean to have all this smack dab in the middle?
It turns out the full picture is some combination of these moods expanded outwardly and all mixed together. Largely, the album is fierce to start, with some brief steps backward, before a more moving second half that sums up the bitter sweet mood with a bright finale. Opening with a heavenly vocal pillow courtesy of Brian Wilson, the album immediately plays with gender identity, before bursting at the seems for 25-odd minutes, with fist-to-the-face sexual politics skirting from buoyant Prince-pop, to big rap verses.
This is an album that queers Springsteen with “IM AMERICAN.” It sees Monae dance her ass off with a burning Thundercat baseline on “Take a Byte,” stomp the yard with thunderous Pharrell Williams drum production on “I Got the Juice,” and cry with desperation on “So Afraid.” Never is it predictable, but yet it all works.
The “Dirty Computer” concept, as Monae describes it, is that those who are other–people of color, queer folks, women and non-binary people–are dirty computer programs that need to be cleansed by socialization. Taking a hammer to all expectations, Monae expertly floats through different aspects of her identity without losing a beat on the best album of the year to date.