After years worth of speculation from fans, R&B icon Janelle Monáe came out as queer in a cover story for Rolling Stone. “Being a queer black woman in America,” she said, “Someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”
But she added that she expressed her true self in her art. “If you listen to my albums, it’s there,” she said, referencing songs like “Mushrooms & Roses” as an example of her sexual freedom through music. She even revealed that her song “Q.U.E.E.N” was originally titled “Q.U.E.E.R.,” and that the word “queer” can still be heard throughout the song’s backing tracks.
Now, the singer has released her third studio album, Dirty Computer. Monáe spends much of the album breaking down her own alter ego of the android Cindi Mayweather and reveals her truest self underneath. This being the artist’s most sincere and honest album to date, Monáe spends much of the album embracing her womanhood, her blackness, and yes, her queerness.
“When I was writing this album I had to decide who I was comfortable pissing off and who I wanted to celebrate,” Monáe also told fans at her Spotify Fans First album release party on April 26. “To my LGBTQ family, I see you,” she added.
Below, Billboard Pride takes a closer look at Dirty Computer, and compiles each of the moments in which Monáe embraces her queer identity.
This may be the most explicitly queer song Janelle Monáe has ever written. In the video for this song, as she robotically intones the vaginal lyrics (“Pynk, like the lips around your… maybe/ Pynk, like the skin that’s under… baby/ Pynk, where it’s deepest inside… crazy/ Pynk beyond forest and thighs”), Monáe is seen dancing around a desert wearing pants closely resembling a vagina — she even births her longtime collaborator Tessa Thompson from her thighs at one point. This song sees Monáe fully embracing not only her queer identity, but her womanhood in a way she never has before.
“Take a Byte”
Monáe has long used the persona of Cindi Mayweather — a futuristic, revolutionary android who fell in love with a human — to express herself through art. That analogy continues on “Take a Byte,” where the artist waxes poetic on the feeling of internalized shame that can come with being queer. She sings, “Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can’t pretend.” The theme of a person’s “code” continues through the album, with Janelle saying that your sexual identity is something internal, not something inserted into you by society.
“Make Me Feel”
Even before Monáe officially came out, fans had labeled “Make Me Feel” and its subsequent video as a bisexual anthem. The song’s lyrics refer to a lover who keeps asking questions (“Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you/ All of the feelings that I’ve got for you/ Can’t be explained, but I can try for you”), presumably a lover asking about Monáe’s sexual orientation. The video washes away any seeds of doubt, as it features the singer dancing and flirting with both men and women, along with the “bisexual lighting” featured throughout (blue, pink and purple lights that look similar to the bisexual pride flag).
Consider Dirty Computer’s titular track as the album’s thesis statement — Janelle Monáe walking the audience through what she’s trying to say. The concept of what being a “dirty computer” means is explained in the songs opening lines, as Monáe sings “I’m not that special, I’m broke inside/ Crashing slowly, the bugs are in me.” This idea can be interpreted many different ways — one is that “the bugs” being referred to are a person’s sexual orientation. Monáe spends much of the album talking about “bugs” and “code,” as things that are programmed into an android’s system, rather than existing there naturally. There are direct parallels there to the way modern society speaks about the origins of queer sexuality.
An anthem for black female empowerment, “Django Jane” is Monáe’s refutal of male-dominated society. When she raps, “Remember when they used to say I look too mannish/ Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it,” she’s reminding her audience of her androgynous fashion over the years, reclaiming her agency as a queer woman to the way that she looks. Plus, she even brags on the track that she “Made a fandroid outta yo’ girlfriend,” taking on the stereotypical role of the rapper who seduced someone else’s girlfriend.
“Don’t Judge Me”
Much of Dirty Computer has to do with Monáe letting go of her past personas in order to be a more open, honest personality. “Don’t Judge Me” may be the artist’s most personal song yet, with Monáe seemingly speaking directly to her fans, and asking them to accept her and her true identity as a queer, black woman. “Let’s reintroduce ourselves, from a free point of view/ If I’m gon’ sin, it’s with you/ Tattoo your love on my heart, let the rumors be true,” she sings, directly referencing the never-ending speculation about her sexual orientation and relationship with Tessa Thompson.
“I Like That”
Throughout her public life, Monáe has been constantly asked about her sexuality, and has always talked about how people should just like what they like and not question it. “I Like That” is Monáe’s acceptance of that for herself, singing “And I like that/ I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one.”
In this anxiety-ridden ballad, Monáe sings about being insecure about the “bugs” referenced in previous songs. When she slips out the words, “I’m afraid of it all, afraid of loving you,” at the end of each chorus, she seems to referencing a phenomenon that many queer people know too well — being scared not only of the way others will perceive their relationships, but of the internalized shame that they’ve learned over a lifetime.
The closing track to Dirty Computer serves as Monáe’s call to action for Americans to battle racism, sexism and homophobia in modern society, both directly and indirectly. When she sings, “Uncle Sam kissed a man,” Janelle is reversing the image of “traditional American values” to show how subjective our societal standards are. And at the song’s closing, an unnamed man speaks to the many ways people are oppressed in modern day America, including the words “Until same-gender loving people can be who they are/ This is not my America.” Each of these moments gives new meaning to Monáe’s outcry at the start of the chorus, where she belts out “Just love me baby, love me for who I am.”