Janelle Monae doesn’t remember the first album she owned as a child, but the first one she spent her hard-earned money on? The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
“I just connected with Lauryn on many levels. The fact that she was a young black woman in America — she looked like a lot of the women in my family... I just loved how she was able to bring her religious background, her singing and acting background together [and] her hip-hop background,” Monae recalled of Hill, whose solo debut celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and was the first hip-hop project to win the Grammy for album of the year.
“The fact that she was all of her(self) on her project felt inspiring to me, and I felt like I could be all of me and I didn’t have to pick one part of me.”
Monae might be music’s closest heir to Hill: She’s an artistic performer known for thought-provoking lyrical content — in rapping and singing — and her riveting roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures established that music isn’t the only art form she shines in. While she has another movie, Welcome to Marwen with Steve Carell coming out in December, she had to turn down some roles to focus on latest album: “They went on to go to amazing people that I respect and admire and want to see shine.”
Monae spoke as she was surrounded by music, literally — standing in the middle of Good Records NYC, the small, basement vinyl shop in Manhattan’s East Village. She walked around, looking at the various faces on the wall — some immediately recognisable, others not so much.
“What I love about record stores is people’s [album] covers used to be so amazing, that you just discover an artist just based off their artwork on their covers and their faces,” she said. “Because a lot of these folks I’m looking at, I’ve never heard of and now I’m so interested to listen to all of their albums because of the incredible cover art they have.”
Dirty Computer, Monae’s latest album, unfortunately isn’t available at the store: That’s because it sold out.
“I can’t believe my vinyl sold out. Man, that’s amazing. I wanted to see it,” she said.
The album, her third full-length project, came five years after she released The Electric Lady and is another critical effort in the multiple Grammy nominee’s catalogue. Monae sings about liberation, oppression, love and more in what is clearly her most honest, sensual album-to-date.
Dirty Computer marks a departure from alter ego Cindi Mayweather, the archandroid that she used as a vehicle for her past work (though she makes an appearance in the short movie that was released with the album). The album title references those who are marginalised and “told they are bugs and viruses [and] things that make them unique have to be erased,” she explained.
On the album, Monae goes from declaring “I just want to party hard, sex in the swimming pool” on Crazy Classic Life to proclaiming, “If you try to grab my [expletive] cat, this [expletive] grab you back” on I Got the Juice, a dig at President Donald Trump and his comments about women in private conversation with Billy Bush widely aired during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Americans closes the 14-track album, where she sings about equal pay, police brutality against minorities, racism and same-sex love (Monae came out as pansexual while promoting the album six months ago).
“I wrote this project during the Obama era and in November 2016. I was 70 perc ent done with it. Things changed for our country, and honestly it informed a lot of what you hear,” she said.
Writing about the political climate wasn’t easy, she said: “It took me time to process what was going on. Culturally, just feeling let down by those who had voted for someone who blatantly disrespects women, in my opinion, (and) abuses their power. It breaks my heart that folks would support that. So it took a minute for me to articulate how I was feeling exactly.”
Monae, 32, said she’s been overwhelmed by the response of the album.
“I’ve been hearing so many stories, [by] black women, black queer women in particular saying that they were thankful that I did this album. When it’s written from an honest and vulnerable space, and it connects to people outside of you, that’s always a beautiful thing,” said Monae.
“We as human beings connect through storytelling and I’m just thankful that my story was able to resonate. I don’t speak for the entire community. That’s never been my goal, but to walk in my truth has always been. I’ve addressed sexuality on a lot of my work, on The ArchAndroid, on Electric Lady, songs like Mushrooms & Roses, Q.U.E.E.N. I just feel like now as a pretty private person, it was just important to make it even more clear.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to be celebrated for walking in your truth.”