Janelle Monae's latest album, Dirty Computer, served as a watershed moment for the multi-talented performer.
One year after appearing in two Best Picture-nominated films, "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures," Monae continued her momentum with an album -- and accompanying 45-minute "emotion picture" film -- that served as a show of support for all of her fellow "dirty computers," or those who have been marginalized for who they are.
Not only did the album essentially represent her coming out as queer, but it also served as the most high-profile, celebrated album release of her career.
Following her performance at Samsung's retail launch of the Galaxy Note9 at Samsung837, where hundreds of fans crowded in for an intimate show with one of this generation's best performers, Janelle Monae sat down with AOL's Gibson Johns to talk about performing live, her complicated relationship with technology and why the commercial and critical success of Dirty Computer matters.
Check out our full conversation below:
I just watched you put on a tour de force set at Samsung837, and I'm wondering how much of what your shows will look like and how you'll perform the songs live comes to you while recording and conceptualizing an album. Is it something you were actively think about when putting together Dirty Computer?
I have a strong visual connection to the live show from the beginning. If I can’t perform the songs, nine times out of ten they don’t make the album. If I can’t perform them, and they can’t be as dynamic as I want them to be, then I’ll do more to the song to make sure that, when I take it on the road, it can stand the test of a live performance. Some records work as records just listening to them, which is cool, but I’m such a performer, so it’s important to me that I be able to enjoy performing my songs just as much as I do recording them.
How do you approach each individual show that you do? You've been on tour and hitting the festival circuit, performing in different kinds of venues.
I work by two things: "Turn nothing into something." I grew up in a working-class family. My mom was a janitor, and my dad worked at the post office and as a trash man, as well. I watched them every single day work their asses off and just create such a beautiful home with just a little bit of money. The love and care that we had, the way they made people feel when they came to our home … all of those things stuck with me, and it’s about making people feel. Feel celebrated, feel loved, feel much better than they did when they talked in. I want them to leave feeling like, "Okay, that was not a waste of my f--king time." Because time is very valuable, so I try to create something that can take people somewhere. When I’m at a live concert, I want to be taken somewhere and on a journey. I want an experience. I would’ve just stayed in my damn house and listened to rain sounds on my headphones. It’s a combination of those things and doing it like it’s my last time, because you never know when it will be your last time.
%shareLinks-quote="I embraced everything that made me unique: From my sexuality, to my womanhood, to my blackness. All of it." type="quote" author="Janelle Monae" authordesc=""%
You mentioned during the Q&A before your performance that you had the idea for Dirty Computer a lot earlier than when you actually started recording it and bringing it to fruition. Now that you're touring with this material, do you feel far removed from it or do you still feel as though it represents where you currently are in your life?
I did mention that I had this concept before, but it’s kind of sad that some of the topics and themes that I wanted to speak about then are still very much relevant now. It’s bittersweet. I would love to see the day where I didn’t have to write an album for those that are in marginalized groups who are being pushed to the margins of society because of who they love or where they come from or the color of their skin. I wish that we didn’t have to have that. It’s just where we are. It’s a subject matter that is still very much relevant. It’s even more important for me [now] to create a space for "dirty computers" and people that feel ostracized and don’t feel connected to the whole concept of the United States of America. Dirty Computer is about creating unity and creating space for us and for all of us to feel seen and heard and celebrated.
Today's event is in tandem with the retail launch of Samsung's Galaxy Note9. You’ve embraced a lot of technology, and it's a pervasive theme throughout the Dirty Picture emotion picture. How have you accepted technology, and also how do you reject technology?
I have a love/hate relationship with it. It can get on my damn nerve. [Laughs] Emails and text messages… it can be overwhelming. So I just turn off. I just say, "Hey, I need to be in this world, so I don’t need to be in that world." Technology and being online, that’s a whole other world.
I feel like that can be so much easier said than done, though.
It is! I just feel better when I delete apps off my phone. I'm like, "Yes! Out of here. 30 pounds lost."
Dirty Computer prompted a wide-range of reactions online -- mostly positive -- from fans and critics alike. How much do you pay attention to people's reactions to your music and shows? Do you pay attention to it or do you try to ignore it?
Right now, I’m aware that Dirty Computer is one of the highest-rated, critically-acclaimed albums this year, so that was really cool hearing that and having journalists write about it. You have the whole stan community, where you can do no wrong, and then critics being like, "I hate your album," so it’s been a blessing to know that, as a black woman who really did try hard to create an experience with this album, doing the emotion picture and putting my all into this, that it has been seen on a critically-acclaimed level. But I don’t get too high off of compliments, because I know that with the snap of my finger, it can go the other way when you’re doing something that critics may deem out of your character. People try to box artists a lot, so it was important with this album that I create more space, more water for me to swim in and to let people know, "Hey, if I can’t do all of me, I won’t do this sh-t." That’s also what Dirty Computer was about, too, that I embraced everything that made me unique: From my sexuality, to my womanhood, to my blackness. All of it. That’s what makes me, me, and makes you, you.
This conversation had been edited and condensed.