When you play one of Janelle Monáe's albums, you aren't just taking a winding tour through the musical influences that have shaped the artist's intoxicating, soul-piercing voice. You're tapping into a part of an expansive Afrofuturist saga about identity, revolution, time travel, and (of course) androids.
Each of Monáe's albums stands on its own as a transcendent piece of art, but her body of work is more than the sum of its parts when you factor in the epic story of a time-travelling android messiah that's been woven into the fabric of her entire discography. Monáe's latest album Dirty Computer, and its accompanying "emotion picture" film, introduces a seemingly new narrative about rebellious humans fighting for their freedom in a dystopian future. But Dirty Computer contains a number of intentional callbacks to earlier work that make it worth taking a look at the concept albums that first told the tale of Monáe's alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather.
Cindi Mayweather preparing herself for a performance in "Many Moons."Image: Bad Boy Records
The Audition and Metropolis: The Chase Suite
One of the most fascinating and impressive things about Monáe's storytelling is that she actually laid out much of the groundwork for her scifi parable in a handful of songs which were part of her self-published 2003 demo, The Audition, and Metropolis: The Chase Suite, the EP released by Bad Boy Records in 2007.
The Audition (sometimes referred to as Metropolis: Point Zero) is a showcase of Monáe's taste in music and her virtuosic vocal talents, but the album's standout track, "Metropolis" is an intricately-crafted introduction to the titular world where we first meet Cindi Mayweather. Monáe's Metropolis, much like Fritz Lang's, is a sprawling megacity where an elite class enjoys the riches of their booming, technologically-advanced society, which can only exist because of the back-breaking labour performed by the working class.
In the song, an unnamed droid describes how Metropolis is segregated along a human/robotic line and mentions that she lives on the "wired side of town," where she doesn't have to worry about the brutal, nefarious Droid Control discovering the secret she's been hiding away.
Cindi's broken the law by falling in love with a human man named Anthony Greendown, who frequents the establishment where she works as a server and dreams of escaping her life as a second-class citizen.
The Chase Suite's opening track "March of the Wolfmasters" elaborates on just how dire Cindi and Anthony's circumstances are. When their relationship is eventually discovered by the Droid Control, a city-wide bounty is put on her head that will end with her immediately being decommissioned and broken into parts.
As Cindi and Anthony run desperately from the Droid Control in "Violet Stars, Happy Hunting!!!" the song's nntic energy makes it clear they're on the verge of being caught and there's little hope of escaping their enemies without a miracle. It's here that The Chase Suite really shifts into gear and becomes something much more than just an excellent EP. Musically, "Violet Stars, Happy Hunting!!!" blends seamlessly with the following track, "Many Moons," a frenetic, pulse-pounding psychedelic banger influenced in equal parts by Sesame Street, Outkast, and the lyricality of negro spiritual call and response songs. The song tells the stories of other persecuted droids on the run from their tormentors and how they all dream of reaching a prophesied promised land where they can live in peace.
It's the music video for "Many Moons" that really expands on just how many levels Monáe's art has been working on since the very beginning. More of a short film than a music video, "Many Moons" further builds on Metropolis and gives us a look at how the city's rich and wealthy live. Here, Cindi Mayweather is reimagined as a world-famous entertainment droid performing at an auction where other droids from her model line are being sold off to the highest bidder.
The lyrics of "Many Moons" take on a new significance as the various Alpha Platinum units saunter down a runway thronged by Cindi's adoring fans, and Metropolis' high rollers excitedly purchase variations of Cindi for their personal collections. Cindi's an iconic rock star, yes, but she's also keenly aware that most humans see her kind as objects for consumption, rather than people in their own right.
The track also reveals the first hint that Cindi herself is the key to the Shangri-La of salvation it describes. Unlike other androids, she's imbued with a mysterious gift that causes her to short circuit and start to levitate, stunning the crowd and ultimately bringing the auction to a close.
Metropolis' final two songs, "Cybertronic Purgatory" and "Sincerely, Jane." add interesting texture to the EP as they seemingly represent Cindi's death and reflection back on her time alive. But the somber, mournful note that The Chase Suite ends on is really only just the beginning of the places that Cindi Mayweather would go.
The cover art for The Archandroid featuring Cindi's headdress styled after Metropolis. Note also that the album cover as a whole is an homage to Fritz Lang's film Metropolis.Image: Atlantic Records
As Monáe grew and matured as an artist, so too did her approach to telling Cindi's story. If The Chase Suite was a beta test of what Cindi could be and stand for, both as a storytelling device and as an alter ego, then The Archandroid was the first official release.
Though the album was light in the way of visual accompaniments set in the ever-evolving dystopia Monáe was dreaming up, the music itself gave insight into Cindi's destiny and the adventure she was created to embark upon that would one day liberate all droids. The album, split into two distinct suites, provides glimpses into Cindi's life in present-day Metropolis and clues about just what it is that she's meant to do. "Suite II Overture," a sumptuous, lush orchestral piece that opens The Archandroid, names Cindi, model #57821, as the chosen droid responsible for leading her people "back to One," suggesting that she might be meant to bring about the singularity or to go literally back to the place and time when the droid's disenfranchisement began.
Songs like "Dance or Die" and "Faster" convey that Cindi's still very much on the run when or wherever she is, while others like "Anthony Greendown" and "Mushrooms & Roses" give you brief glimpses into the forbidden romance that she's willing to give up her life defending. Anthony, we learn, isn't the only person that Cindi has loved — at some point she became entangled with a grey-haired woman referred to as Blueberry Mary who frequented a safe haven where droids and lovers could gather in safety.
In "Oh, Maker," Cindi sings to the being(s) responsible for her existence and wonders whether her ability to love was coded into her soul on purpose. What's most interesting about The Archandroid as you work your way through the album initially is that while time travel is established as being an integral part of the album's story, it's unclear specifically how you're supposed to string its timeline together or whether you're meant to at all.
At various points throughout the 18 songs, Cindi's staring down death at the Droid Patrol's hands, wandering through an asylum for folks whose dancing is a subversive form of magic, or imploring people to join her as she's slipping into the time stream yet again. She weaves in and out of moments throughout time, all the while spreading her messages of love, raging against her oppressors, and encouraging you to do the same.
Cindi Mayweather tending to the dancing droids who perform at the Electric Sheep nightclub.Image: Atlantic Records
The Electric Lady
Monáe's second studio album, The Electric Lady, keeps in the artist's tradition of broadening the scope of her neon-circuited imagined world, but it also grounds Metropolis in a real-time revolution that's gaining traction amongst the city's droid population.
Like The Archandroid, The Electric Lady is comprised of two discrete suits, and its tracks encompass a broad range of musical styles that run the gamut from sweaty, sensual, rock jams bolstered by Prince ("Givin' Em What They Love") and explosive love letters to DC go-go ("Electric Lady"). In addition to overtures, the album's divided up by a series of interludes from the perspectives of droids who've come to see Cindi as their hero. Inspired by Cindi's defiance of the Droid Control, droids from all across Metropolis gather in nightclubs ("Good Morning Midnight [Interlude]") and barbershops where they revel in the otherness that separates them from the humans. Cindi, the droids inadvertently explain, is either missing or in hiding, but her influence and the momentum behind her movement are undeniable. From "The Chrome Shoppe":
Melanie #45221: Yeah, this is Melanie #45221.
Assata #8550: And Assata #8550.
Melanie #45221: With the new, new chapter of the ElectroPhiBetas! We will be at the youth auditorium tonight, along with DJ Crash Crash, and the Wondaland Jam Authority
Assata #8550: Female alpha platinums are in for free. Clones and humans welcome after midnight.
Melanie #45221: We're gonna have a bouncing electro-booty contest, an atomic kissing contest and much, much more!
Assata #8550: No bounty hunters allowed. Bring your punk arse up here looking for Cyndi Mayweather, and you might get hurt!
Visually, The Electric Lady's "Primetime" places Cindi at an undetermined point in the past where she's once again working as a server at the Electric Sheep nightclub and, in a callback to The Audition's "Metropolis," where her job brings her face to face with a human man who becomes enamoured with her. There are a number of moments throughout The Electric Lady that feel like they're revisiting earlier elements of Monáe's epic and re-telling the story with a clearer, but still fragmented, chronicle of the android's life.
The flashes of Cindi's life that we see are deeper and more layered, but at the same time, The Electric Lady also marked a point in Monáe's career when she began to carefully decouple parts of her public identity from Cindi's within the context of her visual work. Everything about the emotion picture for "Q.U.E.E.N." fits into the eclectic, Afrofuturist space that Monáe thrives in, and yet the time-travelling heroine of the video is Monáe herself and not Cindi Mayweather.
Like Cindi, Monáe's on the run through time and space from authoritarian powers, but her plans and goals are decidedly more clear in their execution. Instead of fighting with weapons, the members of Project Q.U.E.E.N. spark social movements through songs and art, something the oppressive Time Council is fighting to stop.
In a way, Monáe's awakening from suspended animation in the sterilized Living Museum is a metaphor for the organic humanity that gives The Electric Lady its beating heart.
On "Q.U.E.E.N.," Monáe playfully acknowledges that she's well aware of all the long-term rumours about her sexuality, and whether she's even really human, with lyrics about digging into chicken wings and declarations that she's more than comfortable with who and what she is regardless of what others think. (It's also cool to note that "Q.U.E.E.N." was initially titled "Q.U.E.E.R." and you can still hear the original lyrics being sung in the song's backing vocals.) As much of a celebration of Cindi Mayweather's odyssey as The Electric Lady is, it's even more of a bold, but still controlled, reminder that Monáe has always been a living person behind the gleaming exterior of her stage persona.
Jane #57821 and a friend being pulled over by the authorities in the emotion picture "We Got The Juice."Image: Atlantic Records
When an artist is working at or close to the height of their creative powers, it can be difficult to talk about their work because it all feels as if there's no way to decouple an individual song or film from the creator's living narrative that's in the active process of becoming.
Dirty Computer is quintessentially an album about Janelle Monáe. Her dreams, her desires, her fears, and her need to be free of the protective armour she once used to shield the vulnerable parts of her soul from public scrutiny. For years, Cindi was that armour and Dirty Computer is a proud declaration that, more than anything else, Monáe's come to see radical truth as a path to true liberation.
And yet there are echoes of Cindi throughout the album's 14 tracks and the nearly hour-long short film that strings together each song's music video into a cohesive plot. The plot is centered around a character who exists somewhere in between Janelle and Cindi's discrete identities.
In the world of Dirty Computer, rebellious humans who refuse to conform to society's rules are labelled as being, well, dirty computers, and are routinely rounded up by the New Dawn enforcers for "cleanings," a horrific process in which all memories are forcibly removed in order to ease the psychological reprogramming process. Jane #57821, a woman living in the edge of the law, knows that she's always moments away from being captured and processed, but she lives her life as freely as she can until the day comes when the New Dawn seizes her.
Because Jane initially resists, she's put through a number of counseling sessions with a woman, Mary Apple #53, who attempts to ease her into the cleaning process. Additionally, she's subjected to special treatment that requires technicians to view a number of her memories before erasing them. It's the heightened reality of those memories that make up most of the Dirty Computer emotion picture.
Dirty Computer's visuals are sumptuous and arresting fragments of the person Jane was before her capture. "Pynk," an elastic reincarnation of Aerosmith's "Pink," is a carnal exaltation of the vagina set in a Dustpunk Themysciran oasis in the middle of the desert. In the Dora Milaje-inspired "Django Jane," Monáe pairs a squad of stylised Black Panthers decked out in leather with a revolutionary declaration that the world needs to be put on a feminist pussy diet. These memories are the texture of Jane's very being and together they create a short film that's something like an immersive fever dream. But it's the raw honesty to the music of Dirty Computer that ultimately makes the album — and the film, by extension - unlike almost anything Monáe's done to date.
Dirty Computer itself is a somber acknowledgment of the insecurities that Monáe once used Cindi Mayweather to keep hidden away from the public eye. On "Don't Judge Me," the artist opens up about her fear of being rejected by people who eventually learned that she is not her stage persona. Monáe transmutes the rage she feels as a queer, black woman living America into pure sexual energy on "Screwed" and promises to fuck back down a world that's become so fucked up.
There's a lack of finality to Dirty Computer that's as frustrating as it is promising for things to come. By the end of the emotion picture, it's purposefully unexplained what, if any, significant connections there are between Jane #57821 and Cindi Mayweather and Blueberry Mary and Mary Apple. One could easily go with the easiest straightforward theory and assume that Dirty Computer is a prequel of sorts, but that seems almost too pat an explanation for Monáe.
There isn't a "right" way to follow the plot of Monáe's catalogue with full clarity of the when, where, and how of the stories she's telling. That's fine, because her art isn't designed to be picked over for minute details. It's an experience you're meant to get lost in so that you can find your own answers on the way back to One.