TODAY’S musicians know that, like sex, social awareness sells. The work of two stars with arguably the most cultural cachet, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, weaves personal experience into wider feelings of injustice and political unease. Both have been celebrated by an increasingly engaged youth. Beyoncé recently became the first black woman to headline Coachella, one of the largest music festivals in the world, while Mr Lamar was awarded a Pulitzer prize. Others see these rewards and rush to replicate them. 

But social awareness shares another characteristic with sex: the slightest hint of inauthenticity spoils the act entirely. In the rush to prove themselves “woke”, many artists have come undone. Katy Perry’s album “Witness” (2017)—billed as a move towards “purposeful pop”—was poorly received by fans who saw the rebranding as a clumsy and obvious attempt to sell records. Justin Timberlake’s song “Supplies” was slammed after critics pointed out that, while the music video sought to align itself with the #MeToo movement, Mr Timberlake rarely speaks up on such issues in reality. (Companies are not immune from this problem, as shown by the backlash against Pepsi’s tone-deaf protest campaign starring Kendall Jenner.)

“Dirty Computer”, the new album from Janelle Monáe, could easily be too on-the-nose. “Americans”, the closing track, lists the marginalised people in contemporary America in a voice over: “Until women can get equal pay for equal work...until same-gender loving people can be who they are...until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head...until poor whites can get a shot at being successful...until Latinos and Latinas don't have to run from walls...this is not my America.” The video for the single “PYNK” features Ms Monáe dancing in gigantic chaps shaped like a vagina while singing an ode to the female genitalia. Another track is a homage to both Prince and bisexuality. In fact, every song on “Dirty Computer” discusses some aspect of race, class, gender or sexual identity. The relentless message is of the need for representation and resistance, packaged in sunny music and achingly cool visuals. It’s undeniably a product of the times—and it works perfectly. 

The track notes released with “Dirty Computer” list the ideas that generated each song, including Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, Gloria Steinem, the Zong Slave Ship massacre, “Black Panther”, Mary Beard’s “Women and Power”, Naomi Wolff, and detention facilities in Chechnya. The songs themselves—and the 48-minute “emotion picture”, a film that accompanies them—are further littered with nods to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, the gun-control debate and “The Vagina Monologues”. These extensive references are not self-conscious or self-congratulatory, because Ms Monáe is embedded in the movements she sings about. She organises marches for Black Lives Matter, has spoken out for gender equality in the music industry, and released a protest song, “Hell You Talmbout”, about police brutality. She has done acting turns in “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures”, two of 2017’s most celebrated films, both of which explored unsung aspects of the black American experience.

Ms Monáe’s previous music tackled similar themes to “Dirty Computer”, though often cloaked in metaphor. Former pieces saw her performing in the guise of her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an indentured android trying to free her fellow robots. For all their pastiche, these “Afrofuturist” concept albums let the singer play with ideas of prejudice and injustice. “Dirty Computer” keeps a science-fiction framework, but Ms Monáe mostly drops the android act and the artifice is stripped back. This has correlated with Ms Monáe opening up about her private life. She stated that she identifies with pansexuality in an interview just before the album’s release, implying little interest in the gender division implied by the word “bisexual”. (Before that she had fobbed off nosy reporters with the response “I only date androids.”) 

Musically, “Dirty Computer” is Ms Monáe’s most diverse album. The style jumps around between pop, hip-hop, R&B, funk and neo-soul. Two high-points include Brian Wilson, the former Beach Boy, lending woozy harmonies to the opening song, and Ms Monáe’s rapping on “Django Jane”—although nods to David Bowie and, particularly, Prince are evident throughout. (Ms Monáe has said that Prince was collaborating with her on the album before he died in 2016.) In many ways, “Dirty Computer” is Ms Monáe converging on a point. The madcap collage of influences, finally paired with personal experience, gives a context for her politics. The result is organic and self-assured, making the message of intersectional inclusivity feel within reach. 

Quincy Jones, a musician and producer, is also quoted in the track notes: “Anger doesn’t get anything done, so you have to find out: How do you make it work? That’s why I was always maniacal about transforming every problem into a puzzle which I can solve.” Ms Monáe takes a lifetime of influences, inspirations and social concerns, and transforms them into a puzzle for the listener. “Dirty Computer” is both fun and rewarding to solve.