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Janelle Monáe Bends More Than Gender In Two New Videos From 'Dirty Computer'

Janelle Monae's third album <em>Dirty Computer</em> arrives April 27.
Courtesy of the artist
Janelle Monae's third album Dirty Computer arrives April 27.

Janelle Monáe has always been adept at shrouding herself in mystery. It's not that she wasn't keen on expressing the depth of her humanity; she just went the length of creating an android alter-ego named Cyndi Mayweather to do so.

Like her against-the-grain affinity for formal wear at a time when most of her pop counterparts were reveling in various states of undress, it added a layer of dimension and intrigue. Yet there was always the sense that more might lie beneath the surface — that maybe Monáe's Afro-Futurist metaphors and otherworldly explorations were an elaborate guise for a tangibleand present soul.

One week after teasing us with a trailer for her forthcoming release, Monáe confirms as much with the premiere of "Make Me Feel" and "Django Jane" — the first two songs and videos from her third LP, Dirty Computer, which will be out on April 27. An accompanying "emotion picture" was announced as well, though its release date hasn't been revealed.Together, the new songs showcase the boldest, strongest, most vulnerable Monáe yet.

Over a slab of '80s-inspired future-funk and guitar licks reminiscent of major influence Prince, the Alan Ferguson-directed video for "Make Me Feel," which co-stars Tessa Thompson as one of two potential love interests, moves beyond androgynous flirtation to reveal something essential about Monáe's experience of gender as the basis of identity more than fluidity.

"It's like I'm powerful with a lit-tle bit of tender / An emotional, sexual bender," she sings on the hook while provocatively stalking the set. By the video's conclusion, any anxiety around the exploration of the unknown has melted into empowered acceptance.

"Django Jane" finds Monáe suited and booted as she raps a personal narrative of black girl magic and feminine empowerment. The video is directed by Andrew Donoho and Monae's longtime Wondaland creative partner Chuck Lightning along with Lacey Duke.

If the choice to premiere two singles at once seems odd, it's the juxtaposition that communicates Monáe's grander vision. She balances the pop-chart seduction of "Make Me Feel" with a certified street banger full of feminist discourse in "Django Jane." They work together as the unified whole of her feminine and masculine energies, but the feeling they communicate is less about representing a binary with either than showcasing the marriage and constant dialogue between both.

In a new interview with Apple Music's Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio, Monáe suggested that Dirty Computeris the album, and personal statement, she's been dying to make, despite her fear over how it will be publicly received.

"I'm going to be 100 percent honest, I'm scared. I'm actually terrified," she told Lowe. "It's such an honest body of work and I don't know how people are going to react to it, Zane. I really, I don't know. Just the thought of it is kind of freaking me out a little bit, but I feel like it's something that I need to do. It's something that I always knew I needed to do and it's going to happen."

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.