Dirty Computer is a triumphant visual album

Beyoncé’s Lemonade was certainly not the first album to be accompanied by visuals. The Beatles gave us A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, Prince gave us Purple Rain in 1984, and Kanye West gave us Runaway in 2010. It was unique, however, in its inclusion of the entire track list of the album. Lemonade wasn’t just a movie that featured songs from Beyoncé’s album; it was an hour-long feature of every song on the album. The ambitious project was one of the best films of 2016, and brought the term ‘visual album’ into the mainstream.

Consider Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer the next project in this tradition; the 46-minute sci-fi film features nearly every song on her album of the same name. The movie follows an android named Jane (Monáe) who is persecuted by a dystopian government for her sexual orientation. The government attempts to delete her memories of her relationship with Zen (Tessa Thompson) one-by-one as she struggles to maintain them, à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Dirty Computer is the Coca-Cola to Beyoncé’s Lemonade: bubblier and a bit more high-energy, but still with enough complexity to satisfy. The central plot line is about being persecuted for a sexual orientation not accepted by society, but the mode of operation is casual defiance, marked by a punchy confidence. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone in which Monáe revealed her pansexuality, she said, “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.”

That confidence and badassery shines through in Dirty Computer. There are as many scenes where Jane is being confined by the government as there are moments of her partying carefree with her friends, creating their own community of acceptance. Where Lemonade was delicate and somber until a triumphant finish, Dirty Computer is colorful and audacious all the way through.

Overall, the film isn’t the visual masterpiece that Lemonade is; it’s a bit pluckier than that. Monáe strains to make her film something important and of the moment, whereas Lemonade felt like a decade-defining work immediately upon release. Perhaps it’s not totally fair, however, to hold Dirty Computer to that standard. It might not be Lemonade, but it’s a gratifying, unique flavor all its own.

Dirty Computer: 3 stars