Best of Spring

Janelle Monáe Is Coming for the Throne

The four recently released singles from the upcoming album “Dirty Computer” indicate Janelle Monáe’s maturation as an artist

by

Spring is a season of blooming flowers and new beginnings. Or, if you’re Janelle Monáe, spring can be a time to don Georgia O’Keeffe–esque vagina flower pants. In the video for her newest single, “Pynk,” Monáe hops around in these pants — the head of her rumored girlfriend Tessa Thompson poking through the layers of pink, labial fabric — and sings, “Pink like the tongue that goes down…maybe/Pink like the paradise found.”

The single, released on April 10, is a barely tongue in…um…cheek ode to the female body and female sensuality. All four of the songs (“I Like That,” “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane”) released so far from Monáe’s upcoming album, Dirty Computer, which drops April 27, are undeniably, hip-gyratingly sexy. But they also demonstrate that Monáe has significantly evolved as an artist since her 2013 album, Electric Lady. Monáe, in an album full of musical references, is staking a claim to the pop throne with her idols by her side.

The four new singles show more maturity than her 2015 release “Yoga,” which was sexy, fun even, but wasn’t layered — it had the same swagger as the new songs, but none of the depth. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist — but I feel it even greater now,” Monáe recently told the New York Times.

Monáe’s earlier work discussed sexuality but didn’t explore it. The songs were eye-winking, surface-level pop hits. On Dirty Computer, Monáe treats sexuality with the nuance it deserves, which situates her work alongside other seminal sexual pop artists such as Prince, Madonna, even Beyoncé.

For example, the most prominent sound on “Make Me Feel,” released in February, is the tongue click, a playful, sexual, silly sound — the sonic equivalent of a wink. But for Monáe it is so clearly more than that.

That tongue click connects her to Miriam Makeba, who recorded the traditional South African wedding song “Qongqothwane,” whose title translated to English means “knock-knock beetle” and refers to a dark beetle making a clicking sound by slamming its belly against the ground. Westerners refer to the song as the “clicking song” as a result of the clicking in the lyrics and in the background.

Clicks are not sounds that have been adopted into the English language, but rather, these sounds have originated, been kept alive, and are used today in African language and in African-inspired diasporic art. A click is certainly not a sound found in the white pop that has dominated the Top 40 in the 2010s. 

In addition to its historical importance, the clicking tongue sound is undeniably seductive.

For example, the sound popped up in Beyoncé’s 2014 self-titled album B side “Blow,” a song clearly about cunniligus. In the song, Beyoncé sings: “I’m-a lean back/Don’t worry it’s nothing major/Make sure you clean that/It’s the only way to get the/[click] Flavor.” There’s very little subtlety in incorporating a sound that can only be made with the tongue in a song so explicitly about oral sex. It’s sexy.

Monáe seems to reference that same idea in “Make Me Feel.” She uses the tongue click directly after lines like “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you” and “Should know by the way I use my compression.” That’s anything but subtle.

Monáe’s four recent singles are stacked with references, too. The bassline on “Make Me Feel” aligns closely to the bassline on Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines.” “Pynk” recalls the funkiness of the Go-Go’s. “I Like That” is an R&B anthem with elements of Nina Simone and Tammi Terrell. All share the spirit of Prince’s warbling synthesizers and production.

“Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds,” Monáe told Annie Mac of BBC’s Radio 1. Prince’s DJ Lenka Paris noted in a now-deleted Facebook post that Prince provided the bouncy synth line that traces through the clicking in the background of “Make Me Feel.” The obvious love story, and the use of magenta and deep blue light (coined “bisexual lighting”) in the video of that song aligns with Prince and the Revolution’s 1986 single “Kiss.”

No sound on “Make Me Feel” appears accidental. A great musician pays tribute to their heroes by showing admiration in a song. Any creator aims to reach a level of maturation where they can integrate all of their inspirations into one harmonious concept, where one sound doesn’t dominate the other. Monáe has done it. “Make Me Feel” is its own song, with its own catchy hook that has its own fun. Even if you miss one of the dozen or so historical references in the song, “Make Me Feel” is a certified banger nonetheless.

Each of the four new singles has an element that unites it with “Make Me Feel.” “Pynk” has the same background bubbly synth line. “Django Jane” has the same swagger. “I Like That” is just as buoyant, with a Prince-inspired rap squeezed in. These songs of self-empowerment and self-confidence are perhaps an indication that Monáe is about to truly, fully come into her own.

On “I Like That,” she compares herself to “the random minor note you hear in major songs.” But in 2018, America might finally be primed for Monáe’s queer, well-deserved major breakthrough into mainstream pop.

 

The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.

Most Popular