We’ve been waiting on Janelle Monáe to drop something new for quite a while now. The notoriously conceptually-minded R&B/neo soul/pop artist really shook things up with her strongest offering yet in 2018’s Dirty Computer, which I reviewed in the BEIN (Before Everything Is Noise) times. Now though, they seem intent to break the internet in a way as old as time: by being as unrestrictedly sexy as possible.
The teaser and subsequent unedited video (linked here because I can’t embed it) for “Lipstick Lover” – which itself was a big-ass tease – dropped and Twitter imploded from how hot it all was, how hot Monáe was. Awash with nude bodies of all types, curves, crevices, and more, it was a bold statement to lead into The Age of Pleasure‘s release with. Oh, the music? Uh, yeah… one sec *listens to the track again*. It’s got some neat reggae-ish foundations to its rhythms and has a great, simple chorus that hammers the tastiness home. Some of the lyrics are very sultry and vulnerable as Monáe lets us know exactly what she likes while still keeping things PG-13. This isn’t meant to be a moral statement – she gets a bit more explicit elsewhere anyway.
That track also gave us a good idea of what to expect from the album – this wasn’t a grand scale concept album with a deep, allegory-packed story. If there was a concept, it was much simpler: sex and love, self and identity, enjoying life and each other, all delivered with the uncaring confidence I’ve come to expect from the artist who refers to themself as a ‘Freeazzmothafucka‘ when it comes to gender and sexual identity. Janelle is queer as fuck and her dropping this album during Pride Month was nothing short of the adrenal shot we all needed in dark, hostile times.
Further back, she signaled this switch-up with the lead single “Float” which is bombastic and flirty as hell. There’s some gems for lines here like, ‘She throwin’ that thang in a circle, makin’ it viral, I might just elope/Say, ‘Listen lil’ mama, you like shibari? Watch while I show you the ropes’‘ or ‘Came back from the future to take all y’all ni**as and take all y’all hoes/They said I was bi – yeah baby, I’m by a whole ‘nother coast‘ which very cheekily alludes to her past albums’ sci-fi theming. These and more are spit effortlessly in a rapping candor, with horn stabs and slides from Egypt 80 accenting the track over sturdy production with beachy vibes and an subtle afrobeat affectation. It’s the kind of thing I would expect to find Jidenna on which is convenient since he and Janelle Monáe are labelmates. The ethos of the track was inspired by everything from Muhammed Ali to the magic carpet from Aladdin.
One of my faves though is “Champagne Shit” which has Monáe really get into her bag with the confidence and shit-talking. Again, horns provide some lovely accents (they’re all over the whole album – good call), but we also get some organ that’s out of this world with the melodies. I’ve had this melody stuck in my head along with the hook for days. Still, she never forgets where she came from and where she’s at now:
‘I used to pray about takin’ vacations
Remember them bills we split
Now I’m here with Bueno and we bussin’ bottles
Like we won a championship’
“Phenomenal” continues these vibes with Doechii on the track, a performer making quite a name for herself that’s caught my eye with her own projects like she / her / black bitch. It’s an ode to self-love and recognizing your own beauty and worth backed by really danceable rhythms – understandable given some of the lyrics (‘Dance ’cause there ain’t nobody else in this bitch like you’). Elsewhere, Monáe gets Nia Long (I’m assuming the actress, who I used to have a mad crush on) on a track along with Amaarae for “The Rush”. Tender song with a lot of sensuality and longing, Janelle Monáe‘s voice up an octave or so as she pines away for someone to feel the rush of love with. It’s so gay and so fun. So is “Water Slide”, a glittery, poppy, not-so-subtle dedication to another kind of self-love (masturbation… it’s masturbation). I love Monáe’s flow here which is fittingly water-like – it’s not rapped, still sung, but her delivery on the hook is great and provides yet another earworm for you to be impaled by.
There’s just a lot of beauty in The Age of Pleasure. It’s about seeing the beauty in others and yourself, it’s about feeling the beauty in lived moments, it’s about appreciation. Most of all, it’s about freedom to do all of this. Though Monáe has played coy at times with her own life and desires, there’s something to be said of the comfort they feel to make music like this, to express themself as freely as she does on this album and elsewhere. This is a short album – 32 minutes – and only one track breaks the four-minute mark, which may make this more of an intermission for other fans who might wish for her to return to the more grandiose concepts of her past, but to me, it’s awesome to see her unwind, shed her android persona for a bit, and bask in love and lust like the humans do.
I’ve always said that sexy music is almost always done better by artists who aren’t men, for many reasons I won’t explicitly get into here. Suffice it to say, The Age of Pleasure is another great example of music staying deliberately sexy without getting exploitative or problematic in other ways. All of that aside, it’s just a fun time; Janelle Monáe really opens up her sound profile here, she sounds better than ever vocally, and I think it’s going to be an important creative step in their career even without a bigger story or idea to go along with it. Sometimes, we just gotta live in the moment, with someone we like or ourselves, and to feel comfortable and safe enough to do so. I think that’s the best thing to take from this album. I wouldn’t expect anything else from the freeazzmothafucka she is. Happy Pride!