Janelle Monáe’s third studio album, Dirty Computer, isn’t just one of the most critically-acclaimed albums of 2018 — it’s also one of the most important bodies of work you’ll hear this year. Sex- and queer-positive anthems like “Make Me Feel” and “I Like That” marry clever lyrics with beats bearing the fingerprints of her late mentor Prince, and the multihyphenate artist has never sounded better. In short, Dirty Computer is pure magic.
The record arrived in April, but it continues to be a force for positivity and inclusivity as she’s taken it around the world on tour. Next up? She’ll bring her live show to Europe before rounding out her very busy year with a number of festival dates.
Billboard caught up with Monáe after her mini-concert at the retail launch of Samsung’s Galaxy Note9 at Samsung 837 in New York on Aug. 24. Below, she touches on the reactions to Dirty Computer, highlights from her North American tour, the legacy of those now-iconic “Pynk” vagina pants and more.
What did you intend to say with Dirty Computer?
I wrote it from a deeply personal space, but I also kept in mind the importance of community for people like myself who identify in many of these marginalized groups. From the LGBTQI community, to black women, to minorities, my Latina and Latino brothers and sisters — my heart is deeply connected to immigrants and what they’re going through in this country. There’s an interconnectedness that I wanted to be at the center of this project: I’m a black woman, but I still understand your pain and how you feel as someone who has felt pushed to the margins of society because of where they come from.
Regardless of me being an artist and being able to entertain and go around the world, when I come home at night and take off my makeup and my performance uniform, I still am a young, black, queer woman from America who grew up with working class parents. At the core, that is my identity. So it was just important to speak from that perspective and, in the process, let people know that it was important for Dirty Computers to feel like we have a community. I wish we didn’t have to do these sorts of things, but it’s real — this is where we are in history.
Now that the album has had some time to breathe, what have some of your favorite responses or interactions been?
When other folks from around the world come to the shows. Or I meet them and they say, “Hey, this really resonated with me,” regardless of how they identify, that makes me feel good. It makes me feel like it’s not just about me. It keeps me moving forward and pressing on, even on days when I’m tired, because I know the power of music, performance and storytelling. I know the power of purpose and how, when you’re walking in your truth, that can inspire other people.
I think this album is something everybody really needed, especially considering the political climate.
Yeah, I had some of these ideas and this title before my first album [The ArchAndroid] came out [in 2010]. Some of the things are very much relevant, so it’s kind of bittersweet.
What would you say has been your biggest accomplishment in the past 12 months?
Man, I feel so thankful, and I stay in gratitude daily, because I could be creating an album that I don’t believe in or doing a performance that I don’t believe in. I’m just thankful that I’ve been able to have clarity about who I am as a person and have a support system with my close family and friends. I’m just realizing that a lot of people don’t have that. Music is important during those times when you feel like you don’t even fit in your own family. I know that that is going on, so for me, I think the biggest accomplishment so far has been making sure that this project continues to reach the hearts and the minds of other Dirty Computers around the world.
And I think with the tour, we’ve been able to touch so many people with the album, and they own the album. When I come to the shows, I have to turn my in-ears up sometimes, because I can hear them singing every word. That means something to me. It makes me proud. It’s theirs now. I feel like I’ve done what I needed to do. Own it, go out into the world and continue to fight for the rights of other Dirty Computers. Keep the torch fire going.
Speaking of tour, I have to mention the now-legendary vagina pants, which you wear during “Pynk” in the set. Do you keep those under lock and key?
They’re definitely protected. They’re in a safe, deeply protected and on ice. [Laughs] The vagina pants, the labia pants, the flower pants — they call them so many names. I love performing “Pynk,” it’s a favorite of mine.
Will fans ever get to own a pair?
We’re working on it. They’re very intricate to make. The crazy thing is that some of our fans were showing up and had made their own versions of them. It was so amazing and cool to watch them design them how they wanted to. I think that’s really cool, because they were inspired by women. And I know that not all women have to possess a labia or a vagina to be considered a woman. It’s been really great to see how different we are and how similar we are and how much empowerment there is when we can just all look at each others’ differences and say, “Wow, I see you, I respect you. I support you.”
You have a few live dates coming up in New York, with Global Citizen Festival and Bustle‘s inaugural Rule Breakers event. Before tonight’s show, your tour also came through in July. I’m going to guess you like showing love to NYC?
New York was one of my early markets that supported me when I was in Atlanta and really couldn’t book a show. There were promoters here who booked me. New York is a second home to me. I love it. I went to school here, at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I’d always wanted to come to New York from Kansas, and I’m so happy that I’m here, doing what I love and being able to be an artist who’s created a space that hopefully feels communal, inviting and inclusive.
When I first came here, going to school, I did not feel that [special energy]. I was struggling, I was on train rides, I was very discouraged. Hopeful at the same time, but discouraged. I think there is a different energy when you come with purpose, you know what your purpose is and you’re ready to give whatever gifts you have.
What else is on your to-do list for 2018?
I’m gonna be deleting some more apps off my phone.