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NPR Arts & Life

Janelle Monáe Teases Dystopic, Afro-Futurist Emotion Picture 'Dirty Computer'

Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe

Who in the pop world but Janelle Monae could pack dystopian Afro-Futurism, sleek runway style, action sequences, club hotness and tender love into thirty seconds?

Today, a teaser-trailer for Monae's new album and "emotion picture," Dirty Computer, was released to the web and select theaters, to air before screenings of – what else? – Black Panther. That Monae isn't actually inRyan Coogler's revolutionary Marvel flick is mildly confusing, since she's been crafting her own version of superheroine-ism since bursting onto the scene more than ten years ago. Of course, she's been busy crafting her own multiverse; no need to attach to a corporate comics franchise. Dirty Computerindicates Monae following her vision in intriguing new directions.

All Monae offers in the tantalizing bite above is thirty seconds of images, a fuzzy smear of guitar feedback, a quick monologue and some finger snaps. Yet somehow, through only that, she builds a world. It opens with a Westworld-style shot of Monae on a floating table, in what's probably an examination room. Cut to a montage of scenes inside a nightspot not unlike the Matrix's Club Hel, where Monae exchanges moves and glances with male and female partners, including her apparent costar, Tessa Thompson. Before you can blink, Thompson is abducted by mask-wearing thugs in military riot gear. Then there are scenes on a beach that have the flavor of A Wrinkle In Time, including one of Monae and Thompson engaging in a tender embrace. Monae (we think) intones: "They drained us of our dirt, and all the things that made us special. And then you were lost. Sleeping. And you didn't remember anything at all." Monae lays prone on the exam table; someone caresses the tattoo on her arm, an apparent amalgam of the primordial goddess and the Wicker Man.

Dystopia, baby! The trailer also features some True Detective-style masks and several high-fashion shots that won't disappoint acolytes of Monae's sartorial genius, including a final shot of her in a spooky costume that seems to invent a Black Queen for a new version of Alice Through the Looking Glass. (Or, snap, in Wondaland.) Are we reading into this thing much? Well, why not? The ongoing saga of Cindi Mayweather, the android alter-ego that Monae has developed in previous recordings and visuals, starting with Metropolis Suite 1 (The Chase)in 2007, has taken her from nascent Fritz Lang fantasies to the beginnings of a whole new language: "Q.U.E.E.N.," the song and video from her last album, 2013's Electric Lady, coined a new term for today's oppressed: "Queer, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated and Negroid." Dirty Computer will likely place that community within the context of a cyber-nightmare – dressed, of course, in dazzling Christian Soriano couture. We know nothing of the music yet, nor of the lyrical content of the album that is part of this project. However, the warm glances between Thompson and Monae in the trailer suggest there will be some love scenes. And no one will be shocked if the dance sequences are on point.

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