It's been five long years since the release of her last album, but the meaning behind Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer short film is all the proof fans need that it was worth the wait. The so-called "emotion picture" premiered on BET at midnight going from April 26 into April 27, and its Black Mirror vibes added a whole additional layer to the toe-tapping tracks. A director's cut of the full, 44-minute masterpiece that is Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture was added to YouTube on Friday morning, and you should, of course, watch it there. But if you're interested in the mind of the artist behind the work, then Monáe's conversation with Billboard about the intention behind the piece is definitely worth unpacking.
“Dirty Computer is a near-future story about a citizen who finds love and danger in a totalitarian society," she told the outlet. That citizen is Jane 57821, who has watched the world around her change, and her fellow citizens be stripped of their humanity. (In this society, humans are referred to as "computers," explaining the title of both the album and the short film.) Jane 57821 has elected to become an "outlaw" in order to operate outside the swiftly-narrowing confines of that world. As minds and machines merge around her, she clings tightly to her personality; in Monáe's own words, "She’s an outlaw because she’s being herself." As she states in a voiceover in the first few seconds of the short film:
"They started calling us computers. People began vanishing. And the cleaning began. You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition. At all. And if you were dirty... it was only a matter of time."
It's an inventive yet terrifying concept that would be just as at-home in a Black Mirror script, at the intersection of technology and humanity. And just like the haunting Netflix series, the heightened world feels distant but not too distant. The suggestion is always there that if the world continues on its current trajectory, it might find itself facing these sci-fi conundrums sooner than anyone imagines.
The reason you have goosebumps right now is because it's all too real, and it's a viewpoint that the 32-year-old Grammy nominee appears to have brought to this project as well. For as dystopian and futuristic as the short film is, Monáe has also stated that she doesn't feel like the issues it tackles are so far removed from what real-life citizens of the world experience in their day-to-day. In the world of Dirty Computer, the government has begun to choose fear over freedom, and she sees the modern world as teetering on a slippery slope toward that exact same eventuality.
As she further explained in her Billboard interview: "Overall, I wanted to reflect what’s happening in the streets right now, and what might happen tomorrow if we don't band together and fight for love."
These days, while you can just put out a regular old album, many artists are choosing instead to imbue their work with important messages about the state of the world. And the work that we'd have to do to fix it. Monáe told Billboard that she has taken note of those artists, and is adding her own voice to the crowd, saying:
"I’ve been inspired by the people that came before me, the artists who pushed the limits of where music can go and how it can be represented visually."
And now, she's passing on that inspiration to you. Just like its creepy Netflix counterpart, the message of Dirty Computer could be taken almost as a warning. Stop blending in. Stand up, speak out, and don't let them take your humanity. All bundled up in beautiful artistry, mind-expanding music videos, and a chilling storyline, of course, because there's apparently nothing this groundbreaking artist can't do.