With ‘The Age of Pleasure’ Janelle Monáe just wants to have a good time
The new album is full of summer vibes
Janelle Monáe’s first three studio albums — The ArchAndroid, Electric Lady, and Dirty Computer — were genre-bending, Afrofuturist feats. In ArchAndroid and Electric Lady, parts two and three of Monáe’s Metropolis concept album series, the Kansas City native crafted an alter ego, Cindi Mayweather — a messianic android from the year 2719. There’s a clear science-fiction inspiration in those projects as the music bounces from funk, to blues, jazz, rock, and back around to soul music — but the music is thematically romantic at its core, drawing from the guiding force behind the 1927 German science fiction film, Metropolis. The title card and core message of the Fritz Lang classic: “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.”
Despite the pantsuits that had long been at the forefront of Monáe’s image at the beginning of their career, that amorous foundation has remained at most of the singer’s public-facing work, as Monáe’s image and interests have continued to shapeshift. Electric Lady reveled in sensuality, with tracks like “PrimeTime” and “Givin’ Em What They Love” dripping in eroticism.
When the artist, who had just come out as pansexual at the time, released Dirty Computer in 2018, it was accompanied by what Monáe dubbed an “emotion picture,” a short film (featuring friend Tessa Thompson) that detailed the story of people shedding themselves of the indoctrination of conformity and entering their queer reality.
After a five-year hiatus, Monáe returns with The Age of Pleasure, a project that is being praised for its themes of sexual liberation as well as its musical influences. In the wake of the pandemic, Monáe — who identifies as nonbinary — created a new universe for themselves, bringing their Wondaland Arts Society team out west, building a new community in Los Angeles and hosting Everyday People events in Wondaland West’s courtyards. Monáe declared that their pronouns are “free-ass motherf—–, and they/them, her/she.” This new milieu birthed the guiding ambiance in The Age of Pleasure — an uninterrupted day party, filled with beautiful Black people who listen to everything from afrobeats and amapiano to funk, dancehall, and trap.
Where The Age of Pleasure breaks from Monáe’s norm is in that it is mostly centered in finding a groove, a space for the listener to vibe and zone out as the Wondaland team dances around with the booming horns of Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, like on the opening track, “Float.” On this album, Monáe has shed the pantsuits for good (they were a homage to her parents, not a comment on respectability or modesty), crooning about same sex attraction on tracks like playfully raunchy and reggae-tinged “Lipstick Lover;” dallying with polyamory on “Only Have Eyes 42”, and engaging in slow-churning seduction alongside Nia Long and Amaarae in “The Rush.”
There’s a leisurely affect to the record that makes it perfect for summer — it is equally polished and relaxing. Monáe has rapped on every album, but on this one, her couplets seem to be more prevalent, such as “Float”, “Phenomenal,” and “Haute.” And her trademark big band vocals, evident on previous albums on songs like “We Were Rock and Roll,” never quite surface. While there may not be much in the way of power singing on The Age of Pleasure, Monáe’s vocal precision showcases itself in the carefully arranged production of triplicate harmonies, particularly in tracks such as “A Dry Red.” The message is clear — we are here to have a Black, queer, fun time, and choosing to exist in that present is a political statement in and of itself.
It’s understandably hard to avoid the comparisons to Beyoncé’s Renaissance. Although released nearly a year apart, both albums are the accumulation and distillations of various touchpoints of each singer’s careers, rendered in the queer lens of the Black musical canon — both even include a feature from Grace Jones, although Beyoncé deploys Jones’ presence to much sharper impact. Where Renaissance seemed to dominate the conversation of 2022, furiously taking over the dance floors of clubs around the world, The Age of Pleasure seems to be more of an effortless groove, inviting listeners to surrender themselves to sublime rhythms whenever they feel comfortable, in whatever state of dress — or undress — that suits them.
While it may seem like The Age of Pleasure is a far cry from the meticulous and fantastical android-driven storytelling of their past, freedom and love have always been at the foundation of Monáe’s music. It is how they have charted past and present political narratives — the right of the android, or any marginalized person to participate in the experience of love and community that has been robbed from them. Monáe has chosen to take that motif and make it more explicit and fun — temporarily disposing of the more afrofuturist renderings of their musical inclinations to find bliss in reveling in the now. While the album is not particularly challenging, it is an enjoyable capsule of where Monáe is in their life right now — celebrating the community they’ve built, the experiences they’ve accumulated, and rejecting any box that society wants to put them in.