Is Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer” the New “Purple Rain” or Something Else Entirely?

Welcome to Soundfly Slacks Off, a published team discussion.

The following conversation took place among Soundfly team members on May 4, 2018 and has been edited to provide maximum interesting stuff and minimal snoody gibberish (but we kept some of that in there too). Want to nerd out with us on musical topics or get help from our team of mentors on your latest musical challenge? Send us a note

Mister Snowball (Jeremy Young, Editor-in-Chief, Flypaper)  
Welcome to Soundfly’s first ever Slack discussion! Who’s here?

Ian Temple (Ian Temple, CEO & Founder): Me!

Martin Fowler (Martin Fowler, Mentor & Associate Producer): Heyyyyyyy.

Mister Snowball: Today, we’ll be chatting like a bunch of armadillos around a cactus, or like a bunch of Long Island housewives playing Mahjongg, or a greenhouse full of chatty plants after dark, about Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer.

Ian: Woohoo! Listening to this album as we speak.

Arthur Lewis (Arthur Lewis, Head of Product): I’m watching the movie.

Ian: It’s hard to dance and type at the same time.

Mister Snowball: Agreed. That should’ve been my first question. Instead, let’s dive right in with the hard-hitting questions: Is “Make Me Feel” a deconstructed 12-bar blues?

Ian: Ha! Nice first question. Right into the meat of it. I say yes. I start listening to that song and my mind is immediately triggered to think “blues.” The first 8 bars (after the intro) doing I IV I just puts me in a certain frame of mind, structurally speaking.

Lisa Occhino (Lisa Occhino, Director of Marketing & Communications): Whoa, I’m already behind on this convo! But yes, same — I thought blues immediately.

Martin: Check this out.

Arthur: I mentioned this yesterday, but the first thing I hear when I hear the song is “Kiss,” and then I move onto blues.

Zoë Young (Zoë Young, Director of Digital Marketing): Yeah. Obvs your brain goes to Prince first… Saying the first thing you think of is the blues is crazy.

Martin: That’s true, but wouldn’t you have to admit that “Kiss” is also deeply influenced by the blues?

Zoë: That’s JUST what I was about to say.

Mister Snowball: It’s also the beat, I realized, that brings “Kiss” so close to this track. The quick slap back: “boom-bap |  | boom-bap.”

John Hull (John Hull, Head of Production): …and the synth.

Ian: It’s interesting you all say that, but it’s the song “Screwed” that has that fast paced guitar intro that’s so similar to “Kiss.”

Arthur: Ha, Ian, I never would have made that connection. Sounds like your standard “chicken grease” to me.

Mister Snowball: We’re going to need to come back to that in a minute, Arthur…

Ian: Back to the blues form though, I think Janelle’s turnaround hits that V chord very obviously in a way that just hammers home the structure of the blues to me. Granted, the turnaround is 8 bars instead of 4.

So, this would be a 16-bar blues, if we were fitting it into that paradigm. It holds the tension a little bit longer… and makes that release oh so funky.

Mister Snowball: Monáe needs an extra 4 bars to vamp around. 

Martin: I think it’s less about the timing of the form, and more about the use of functions, building tension and release in the same manner as the blues.

John: It’s also a bluesy vocal melody.

Martin: I especially love that guitar line, which is super Prince-like!

Ian: Yes, agreed, and the synth…

Mister Snowball: OK, Arthur, so please explain -> “sounds like your standard ‘chicken grease’ to me.”

Martin: Show us the ways of the chicken, Arthur!

Arthur: So, “chicken grease” is a funky 16th note rhythm guitar pattern with all the nice accents and syncopation and such.

Ian: Whoa, cool! I love learning new things. Are there other chicken grease examples you can point to?

Mister Snowball: Ummm… wait for it… what the hell? A forum on the subject?!?!? THANK YOU Prince for hooking this up somehow and letting us play around with this forever into the future. Oh yeah, duh. D’Angelo’s “Chicken Grease.”

Arthur Lewis  I think D’Angelo says in an interview somewhere that “chicken grease” was specifically Prince’s term. I think he uses it in “Beautiful Night?” (the term, I mean.)

Ian: You know one thing worth mentioning is… when I heard “Make Me Feel,” I thought the entire album would be very Princey. And I think I was surprised that many of the other tracks are off in very different directions. Anyone else think that? Like, there’s almost more “pop” than “funk” in here…

Lisa: Yes! Listening to the full album straight through was surprising (in a good way) after having only heard the single beforehand.

Mister Snowball: Multiple topics here, I like it, I got my work cut out for me later. Raise your hands if you’re listening to D’Angelo now…

Raised Hand: Medium-Light Skin Tone on Apple iOS 11.3Raised Hand: Medium-Light Skin Tone on Apple iOS 11.3Raised Hand: Light Skin Tone on Apple iOS 11.3

Can we please acknowledge the Michael Jackson reference in the title and lyrics of “Make Me Feel?”

Zoë: Or is it a Shania Twain reference? re: Ian’s thought about the album not being super Princey — I had the same thought on first listen, but coming back to it again, I hear Prince in more songs than I initially did! Like, “Americans” reminds me of “Let’s Go Crazy” but it didn’t on first listen.

Mister Snowball: Or back to “Make Me Feel” for a minute, it feels lyrically, very Princey…

“It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender,
An emotional, sexual bender.
Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better,
There’s nothin’ better.”

John: The intro of “Take a Byte” reminds me of “Africa” by Toto.

Mister Snowball: (Everything reminds you of Toto.)

John: Truth.

Arthur: I’m honestly impressed that you’re able to point to individual songs so quickly Zoë — I’ve been through the album a bunch of times, and I still have trouble separating it out into individual tracks in my mind. Oh yeah, and that intro on “Americans” reminds me of “The Ladder” just a little too.

Ian: I think the “church organ” sound was very deliberate in “Let’s Go Crazy” and in “Americans,” and ties into the themes of those songs. It’s interesting to see this thread of both Prince and then Monáe very consciously and deliberately pulling in these things from prior American musical traditions, like the blues structure, the James Brown funky guitars, the gospel sounds…. and I think Monáe adds hip-hop into the equation.

Zoë: Is it too off topic if I bring up the dance moves?

Mister Snowball: Nah! My next question was gonna be around the film and visuals. Question: Can we make the argument that Dirty Computer is the new Purple Rain? Discuss.

Martin: Eh…

Zoë: The dancing in “Make Me Feel” brings in the full Purple Rain family. She does Apollonia, she does Lisa, she does a lot of Morris Day moves..

Mister Snowball: Well, it’s also a full album music film, “emotion picture” as she calls it. Plus, all songs are performed (ish) plus there’s a secondary narrative tying it all together.

Arthur: Heh, I’ve only seen the first 20 minutes so far, but it feels like a different kind of animal.

Ian: I’m not sure I think of this as Purple Rain — different beasts. Purple Rain is so introspective and tortured.

Mister Snowball: Thematically… there’s this “Us versus Them” thing there kinda. The “freaks having their revolution”… sex sex sex sex sex… outfits…

Martin: The sexual revolution aspect is very “in line” with Prince, but I don’t know if it’s especially Purple Rain.

Zoë: No, I don’t think this is Purple Rain. Dirty Computer is so future-focused. Purple Rain is a retrospective.

Mister Snowball: Well, yeah… In Dirty Computer, she’s constantly triggering memories of the past. Similar to Prince’s visions of his past.

Arthur: I think i’m also a bit wary of casting her work as Prince plus 35 years, you know. Like sure, there’s some influence, but there’s a lot more going on.

Ian: Yeah^^^ I think Arthur, that’s the point I was trying to make above. This album is about so much more than Prince. And I think that’s been really interesting and surprising to me. Given the first single, and what everyone’s talking about.

Mister Snowball: Well yeah of course.

Mahea Lee (Mahea Lee, VP of Learning & Curriculum Development): I’m on west coast time and need five minutes before the caffeine fully kicks in so bear with me… Conceptually, I think there’s an interesting difference between the two.

Zoë: Right, even visually, she makes it pretty clear she’s drawing on a big variety of influences.

Mister Snowball: But also like…. “Dirty Computer” = “Dirty Mind” + “Computer Blue.”

Mahea: This is the first album where Janelle Monáe is Janelle Monáe. Whereas in Purple Rain, Prince is singing as a character, right? A character similar to himself in some ways… but I wonder if that had an effect on the songwriting…

Mister Snowball: Prince wrote the character of The Kid as other than himself but inspired autobiographically.

Mahea: Right, but even putting a character’s name on it puts up a bit of a wall in the process I’d think. Whereas, she’s tearing a similar wall down here by not presenting herself as “Cindi Mayweather.” It’s a new vulnerability for her. I’m curious as to how this being Janelle Monáe performing as Janelle Monáe differs from Janelle Monáe on past albums.

Mister Snowball: (For the record, still listening to D’Angelo.)

Ian: I think the Prince references are so obvious that in some ways it’s more interesting to talk about how this album really is pushing past Prince and into something uniquely her. Like, “Pynk,” “Django Jane,” “I Got the Juice,” “Screwed,” and then the opening track… what are those? They’re all over the map in terms of influences and styles.

Mister Snowball: I kept thinking it was like Quincy Jones mixed with Katy Perry. It’s like bubblegum pop production but with interesting harmonic turns.

Ian: Yeah, it’s got quite a few, like, Katy Perry / Taylor Swiftian moments.

Arthur: Yeah, it’s a lot more pop production than I was expecting, especially vocally.

Zoë: Can someone tell me what the synth line in “Crazy, Classic, Life” reminds me of? It’s like an ’80s song, but it feels like a specific ’80s song I cant put my finger on…

Lisa: Something reminded me of ’80s + Gwen Stefani, but I can’t remember which one…

Martin: YES! IT’S BANANAS! “I Got the Juice!” sounds like “Hollaback Girl.”

Arthur: As much as this album celebrates the finding of her voice as Janelle Monáe rather than Cindi Mayweather, I was surprised at how textural her voice sounds a lot of the time, production-wise.

Ian: That’s interesting, Arthur what do you mean by textural?

Arthur: Just the pop thing. As a singer, she blends herself into the mix in that pop production way. That changes a bit on the rap stuff, but I don’t think drastically. I mean, it sounds great — I was just surprised at first.

Ian: Also, I think it’s surprising for an album that’s such a social statement to be so….. celebratory? happy? Even “ecstatic” at times? In the era of Trump, we don’t hear a lot of artists taking this sort of approach…

Zoë: That to me feels like the afro-futurist element. It’s imaging this triumphant future.

Ian: Joy as an act of resistance?

Mahea: I don’t mean to jump off topic, but I need to put this out here because it’s been on my mind since I first listened to the album the day it came out: Brian Wilson is perfect on that opening track. It’s amazing that those vocal harmonies fit a modern album so nicely, when we’re so used to hearing them and instantly getting nostalgic.

Ian: Any idea what those harmonies are?

Mahea: I haven’t transcribed them or anything, but they really do sound like Beach Boys’ harmonies.

Martin: They’re just super-well-orchestrated choral stuffs.

Mahea: I agree with Marty. I think a big part of what makes the vocal harmonies so compelling is that the individual lines are written well.

Zoë: Okay, but can someone tell me what song those synthy tink tinks remind me of? It’s been driving me mad, I’ve read like a dozen reviews trying to find someone talking about it…

Arthur: Unfortunately, it’s driving me nuts now too.

Zoë: Well, that feels like a small win.

Arthur: Is it just the timbre, or the actual notes?

Ian: Haha, the timbre is somewhat similar to “Take On Me,” or “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” but with more reverb.

Arthur: It actually reminds me a bit of “Let’s Go Crazy” too.

Mister Snowball: Oh boy, it all comes back to Prince…

I actually also got a kind of Solange-y vibe while watching the film, during “Pynk”… Check this out:

Mister Snowball: …Which, now that I think of it, a lot of Solange’s messaging is shared by Monáe… anyway.

Zoë: I agree! I thought a lot of Solange in the visuals of this album.

Ian: We haven’t talked about Monáe rapping at all… I think it’s such an interesting part of this album. Another unexpected surprise.

Mister Snowball: It felt really constrained to me. Like, it was the place in the music where she felt least likely to break out of any boxes. Maybe I’m wrong, but the rapping style was very like, “contained.”

Arthur: Man, I definitely did not feel that. For me, when she rapped for the first time, it felt like the whole album opened up.

Ian: Yeah, I think I agree with Arthur. It hit me in a gut way.

Arthur: I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with vocal timbre today, but I feel they captured a certain warmth in her voice when she raps that makes it feel a lot more immediate.

Ian: I don’t usually think of her as a rapper first, but for some reason, the rapping on this album really surprised me.

Zoë: Has she ever done as full blown a hip-hop song as Django Jane?

Ian: Does anyone feel like she’s more confident in her rapping on this album?

Zoë: I like the rapping at the end of “Crazy, Classic, Life.” It offered a nice contrast to the happy poppiness.

Mister Snowball: Actually that was where I really loved it. I remember it felt more organic coming out of this tune, but in other spots it felt a little forced to me.

Anyone got any thoughts about what’s going on harmonically in “Crazy, Classic Life?”

Arthur: It’s got a nice ♭III  IV  I  chord progression going on — I think you don’t really hear that very much in pop music these days?

Mister Snowball: That’s the chorus, eh?

Arthur: Yeah.

Ian: Yeah, I love that sound.

Mister Snowball: So yeah, Zoë’s ’80s synth, plus a not-often heard progression… Nice throwback combo. With all that wild synth bass floating around, it’s kind of the under-recognized masterpiece of the album!

Zoë: I hope our readers can identify the tink tinks. LEAVE THE TINK TINK-INSPIRATION IN THE COMMENTS BELOW!

Totally unrelated — I read in a review someone saying that “Screwed” was super technically impressive, with a George Clinton-y bass line, and that made me hear the song very differently. It turned a very Taylor Swift song into a straight funk song to me.

Arthur: This bass line doesn’t seem that impressive to me? Just kind of syncopated.

Martin: Bassist weighing in. Yep, nothing too crazy, but certainly funky!

Mister Snowball: It was one of the songs Stevie Wonder co-wrote.

Zoë: Mmmmm iiiinteresting.

John: What did you guys think of “So Afraid?” Seems like such an oddball on the record to me.

Zoë: Yeah, that one’s weird, John. It starts out like kind of No Doubt-y (maybe Lisa was onto something when that other song reminded her of Gwen Stefani…)

John: That’s a good comparison.

Ian: It brings back the vocal harmonies that started the album and kind of builds to this visceral climax. When she’s yelling in the middle, it feels very narrative-driven. Like, a song that might struggle to stand on its own, but in terms of the narrative of the album, it’s maybe this moment of wilderness, of questioning, and of tension before the ultimate “release” of the “Americans.” Am I hearing some diminished tonality in there? (1:47 or so I think.)

John: I can get behind all that. It’s so musical theater-y.

Arthur: Ian, it sounds like a V of VI- kind of thing to me. Like an E chord in C major.

Ian: Ah, yeah, ok. I hear that.

Okay, wrapping up. Any takeaways? What did we discover in this conversation?

Zoë: Jeremy thinks Janelle Monáe is a bad rapper, Arthur thinks she is a good rapper. This shall be settled behind the bleachers at 3:05pm.

Mahea: These things are hard to keep up with…

Mister Snowball: In many ways (instrumentation, influences, harmonic progressions) she takes sounds and methodologies from the past and uses them in a techno-dystopian future to create a new voice and sound for herself that is fresh and immediately urgent.

Mahea: Whoa, sorry, thought you meant takeaways about this experience.

Ian: Hahaha. Well, I suppose we have both now…

Zoë: Mahea: “Nice try, Jeremy, but this wasn’t very interesting.”

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