The last time I heard about a music artist’s 40-minute companion film to an album, it was Kanye West’s Runaway. The female lead is a model dressed as a phoenix with body paint and feathers whose only purpose in the film is listen to Kanye’s explanation of the world. Take this in contrast to Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer. The pop singer, actress and, now, producer’s film that accompanies her new album of the same name.
Monae’s Dirty Computer is her third addition to her studio discography and first concept album. Her music overtly stresses individuality and acceptance of marginalized groups. It’s fitting that the setting for the album and the film is a world where a dystopian, ultra-conformist society rules. The plot of the film revolves around Monae’s character: Jane 57821. Jane is labelled a “dirty computer” for living a non-binary lifestyle and is forcibly brainwashed The erased memories become the window through which most of the record’s songs are viewed. In the beginning of the film, the music videos give insight into how Jane ended up being labeled a “dirty computer,” but over time the memories/videos become more stand-alone and oriented toward the songs themselves.
Just because the album and film were released in conjunction does not mean that one is not good without the other. Tracks like “Screwed” with Zoe Kravitz express Monae’s hopeless cynicism towards the world events around her that many people of our age can identify with. “Django Jane” is perhaps the most well known song on the album, sporting its own single before the release of the EP. Being the only rap record on the tracklist, Monae chooses quality over quantity as she focuses in on the plight of women in her era, giving a surprisingly well-delivered verse for an artist mostly known for her vocals and pop-appeal. Those same vocals and pop-appeal come out in force with “Make Me Feel,” a Prince-inspired piece with fantastic production.The accompanying music video turns heads, to say the least. The film does not possess the cinematic expertise of Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson, but the message behind the piece is positive and many of the music videos inside of the film are just as good as stand-alones.
Kanye West’s Runaway surprisingly holds a similar theme of individuality in the face of societal backlash. But, typical to most projects by Kanye, the whole project is really meant just for Kanye. I may never forget the paper mache Michael Jackson head featured in the segment for “All of the Lights,” however, Runaway is simply an extension for Kanye’s personal power trip of an album. My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy is an absolute powerhouse of a record, but it speaks for nobody other than Mr. West. Exactly the opposite goal for Dirty Computer. This is not to say that Monae’s work has no personal attachment. Dirty Computer came out at a particular time for Monae. Last year, a hailstorm of media frenzy occured after a Rolling Stone interview where the artist brought up her bisexuality and some elements of pansexuality. though most headlined proclaimed Monae had come out as fully pansexual. This is nothing new for the 33 year-old, after years of attention for dressing in tuxes at red carpet events and social media posts supporting androgynous lifestyles, Monae revels in controversy and uses it to heighten her platform. With this in mind, it’s no wonder one of her major influences has been Prince. After the famous musician’s death, it’s exciting to see another black and non-binary presenting artist in popular culture, because acceptance comes from visibility, and in Dirty Computer Janelle Monae certainly knows how to put on a show.