New York Times Magazine just published an epic profile of Janelle Monáe in advance of her anticipated new album, Dirty Computer, which drops on April 27th. It covers her childhood, her studies, the influence people like Prince, Sean Combs, and OutKast’s Big Boi had on her career. There are tantalizing hints of what’s to come on Dirty Computer’s accompanying 50-minute “emotion picture” starring friend and muse (?) Tessa Thompson. And threaded throughout, the piece offers a strangely tangible glimpse at what it’s like to simply be in the presence of Janelle Monáe — a woman who clearly knows how to make an entrance:
As the sounds faded, the guests turned their attention to the eight women marching into the bar. Each wore aviators, leather jackets over black bodysuits and brightly colored tights. They struck dramatic poses — an arm flung over an eye, a hand on a cocked hip, a leg held askew — and paused as the singer Janelle Monáe strolled into the room and took her place in the middle. She was dressed in a studded motorcycle jacket over a white crop top, black palazzo pants, suspenders, a derby wool hat and mirrored sunglasses. A navel-length ombré rattail snaked over her shoulder. For a moment, she stood perfectly still, letting the room drink her in.
Dirty Computer is Monáe’s first solo album in 5 years. But it wasn’t just her burgeoning acting career that kept her from finishing it…
But part of the reason she was slow to return, she told me, is that her mentor, Prince, died unexpectedly. They were working together closely on what would become “Dirty Computer.” “This was the person that I would literally call and talk to about sounds or: ‘How should I say this? Is this saying too much?’ I just never could imagine a time where I couldn’t pick up the phone or email him, and he’d contact me right back and we’d talk about all these things that I was unsure of.”
In case you needed any other proof that you’ll never be as cool as the cast of Black Panther, here you go:
Several years ago, Monáe established the Wondaland label — one of the few black women to have a label of her own — and signed several acts, including the band St. Beauty (one member, Isis Valentino, was a backup singer for Monáe) and the singer and rapper Jidenna. The Wondaland artists often practice together and appear on one another’s albums. And the compound, where the artists often crash, has become a center of black culture in Atlanta. Much of “Black Panther” was shot in and around the city, and the cast held impromptu gatherings at Wondaland. At one, Chadwick Boseman whaled on the drums and Lupita N’yongo was hailed as the best dancer. They were among the first to hear “Dirty Computer,” and their approval gave Monáe’s confidence a boost. “I felt understood,” she told me. “I felt like, Man, these are people I admire and I respect, and they love this album. I have to finish it.”
More than anything, though, the profile reveals the impasse Monáe finds herself at — professionally, artistically, politically. Her Cindi Mayweather persona was a shield, she acknowledges, but Dirty Computer is an attempt to reveal more of her true self to the world: “I knew I needed to make this album, and I put it off and put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe.”
But that doesn’t mean she’ll reveal everything — or rather, perhaps a certain amount of undefined, unlabeled ambiguity is an integral part of Janelle.
I asked Monáe what she thought of the internet’s speculation about her romantic relationship with Thompson. Watching her as she decided on a response was like watching a mathematician working out Fermat’s Last Theorem. Gears were churning; calculations were being made. Finally, she laughed, raised her eyebrows and deflected: “I hope people feel celebrated,” she said. “I hope they feel love. I hope they feel seen.”
The profile is long and illuminating, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it “intimate.” Part of what makes Monáe so fascinating, and which the article captures, is just how intentional every decision she makes is — how intensely she considers the perception of her. It isn’t just that her image is carefully crafted, it’s that she’s an artist who wouldn’t have it any other way. She reveals herself in those decisions, in the answers she withholds. She is a performer through and through, and what we’re witnessing now is the creation of her Janelle persona. It may be more real, but there is still that unshakable mystery that surrounds her and sets her apart.
Damn, I can’t wait for April 27th.