In case you didn’t get it the first time, Janelle Monáe is here to remind you once again that she’s “young and I’m Black and I’m wild.” As its title suggests, her new album “The Age of Pleasure” prioritizes fulfillment and celebration in every way. The brief but irresistible blend of genres teems with humid sensuality and joyful confidence.
For the majority of Monáe’s career, her music has told the stories of Cindi Mayweather, an android character created to aid Monáe in revealing fragments of her own personal truth. While her first two albums, “The ArchAndroid” and “The Electric Lady,” hinted at themes of sexual liberation and queer identity, her third album, “Dirty Computer,” cracked open the chrome facade. Mayweather was recast as “Jane 57821,” a different android working on embracing her queerness and Blackness. After a decade of using Afrofuturist landscapes to shed light on the issues of bigotry and equality, Monáe is eager to celebrate all that brings her pleasure in the real world. In some ways, celebrating pleasure while queer, Black and non-binary (Monáe uses she/they pronouns) may be a political act in and of itself.
Over the last few years, Monáe’s safe haven has been “Wondaland West.” An artistic “commune” of sorts set up by her label, Wondaland Records, the property includes living quarters, recording studios and a swimming pool for the inevitable celebrations that will occur. Throughout the pandemic, Monáe used the compound as a space to bring together like-minded individuals for parties, which also provided an excellent opportunity to crowd-test her new songs. The music on her new album reflects these celebrations and the safe space they created for Black and queer creatives.
Washing all characters away and stepping up to the mic as simply Janelle Monáe Robinson for the first time, she opens the album by reflecting on this important moment in her career. Monáe finds her footing on “Float (feat. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80’),” running through iterations of the line “No, I’m not the same/I think I done changed.” A swell of horns supports her affirmations, the effect being a triumphant amalgamation of booming brass and fluttering hip-hop instrumentation. “I used to walk into the room head down/I don’t walk, now I float,” Monáe sings.
Monáe’s definition of pleasure is centered on personal satisfaction, not just used in the context of relationships with other people. Monáe’s lyrics illustrate that pleasure is an act of self-empowerment and can be found by doing things that fulfill you emotionally, mentally and physically. Self-love is the focus of the irresistible Doechii collaboration, “Phenomenal.” “I’m lookin’ at a thousand versions of myself/And we’re all fine as f—,” Monáe purrs, right off the bat. Leaning into synths and drums and away from the brass-heavy sounds of her previous songs, this piece is a love letter to herself that encourages listeners to sing along. “Say it to my face,” Monáe commands, demanding that the listener respond with “Phenomenal!” Though the music was obviously created by and for Monáe, it’s clear that she’s not leaving anyone behind in her quest for pleasure. One of the central traits of all the music on the album is its individualistic yet collective nature. While the songs can be prescribed for you and yourself only, they can — and should — be shared with others around you, to encourage feeling good in every way.
Slipping out of “Phenomenal” and right into “Haute,” Monáe is at her most confident. The ruling is in: Monáe is “haute” and you “can’t tell me I’m not.” “This that wake up and look in the mirror/Like ‘Yes! I’m feelin’ sexy,’” she boasts. Clocking in at just under two minutes, the only drawback to the song is the short amount of time allotted to declaring that “A b— look good/A b— look haute” before Monáe moves on to the next number. This tends to be a theme on the album, as the 14 tracks add up to just a short 34 minutes of delectable anthems. Perhaps it’s true that leaving people wanting more is better than giving them too much.
The first half of the album focuses on personal pleasure and confidence, while the second half covers pleasure in relation to others. The transition between these two themes is found in the second single, “Lipstick Lover.” Backed by a reggae beat, Monáe spends time reveling in the anticipation of a physical experience while delivering impeccable harmonies and a chant-worthy chorus. “I like lipstick on my neck/Hands around my waist so you know what’s comin’ next,” she gushes. The song is breezy, jumpy and calls to mind days out in the sun, tanned skin and the sound of champagne bottles popping. Whether intentional or not, Monáe has undoubtedly set forth her contender for song of the summer. Listen once and you might just be humming the earworm, “I really got a thing for my lipstick lover, lover, lover, lover, lover,” for the rest of the day.
Though she repeatedly reminds us of just how “phenomenal” and “haute” she is, Monáe’s messages never come off as cocky or arrogant. Her strong sense of identity makes her affirmations and boasting convincing and admirable. “The Age of Pleasure” is a celebration of Black queer existence, and drowns out all naysayers in a carefree and light-as-a-feather manner.
Keeping the flow going, Monáe breezes through several explorations of infatuation (“The Rush (feat. Nia Long & Amaarae”), desire (“Paid In Pleasure”) and sex (“Waterslide”). To cap things off, she closes the album with the stripped-down guitar cut “A Dry Red.” Singing in a falsetto lilt, she promises her partner they can “make a scene/Or bеtter yet, we could makе a movie.” In restrained moments like this, her voice is at its most tender and intoxicating. The song takes place in the aftermath of a raging pool party, as Monáe implores her lover to stay a little while longer. “I just wanna get you in the shower/Meet me in the back in an hour,” she coos. The song wraps up the preceding fun, flirty, and funky material with a crimson kiss of romance. If we’ve learned anything from this album, it’s that the summer of 2023 will be remembered as “The Age of Pleasure.”