Album Review: Janelle Monáe, ‘The Age of Pleasure’

    The Age of Pleasure might be an unusually straightforward title for a Janelle Monáe album – the record itself prizes immediate gratification more than any of the singer-songwriter-actor’s previous efforts – but it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. There were hints on 2018’s Dirty Computer, which placed an emphasis on hooks and embraced joy as the language of liberation, leaning on a warm, new wave-inspired palette that rendered its politicized narrative more accessible. The conceptual framework was there – Monáe continued to hone her penchant for dystopian world-building with the collection The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer and its accompanying short film – but it could be easily extricated from the pleasures of listening to the album. Even as Monáe seems to ditch high-concept Afrofuturism entirely on The Age of Pleasure, however, it feels less like a departure than a natural continuation: “Baptize me with ocean/ Recognize my devotion,” Monáe sang on ‘Don’t Judge Me’, one of the most nakedly vulnerable moments on Dirty Computer. “The water’s perfectly good/ Let’s reintroduce ourselves/ From a free point of view.”

    Replete with water imagery – though it’s mostly sanitized pool water we’re talking about, not ocean – The Age of Pleasure wastes no time doing just that. “I’m not the same,” Monáe declares on ‘Float’, but she’s definitely more herself, more present. The buoyant horns of Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 don’t soundtrack battle but a victory lap, Monáe breezing through their journey toward self-confidence so that they can spend the rest of the album in pursuit of simpler delights. Free from disguise, they allow themself to bask in the glow of their achievements, dripping with ambition even if the sonic markers of it are noticeably absent. “It’s hard to look at my resume, hoo, and not find a reason to toast,” she raps. She’s not here to prove herself or even engage; she’s on her champagne shit, and it’s hard to imagine any other artist making effortless pride sound so sumptuous and commanding. They’re hard at work – the album is tastefully crafted and typically polished – but the image they present isn’t that of a genius innovator continuing their sci-fi saga but a “free-ass motherfucker” hosting pool parties.

    In that sense, The Age of Pleasure is autobiographical and intimately human – the target audience Monáe had in mind were her guests at Wondaland West, the Los Angeles compound where she threw parties during lockdown. At just over 30 minutes, it’s their cleanest, tightest, and horniest album to date, but the reason it works is that it also feels inviting – the tracks flow seamlessly into one another, yet they also relax into a communal celebration of queer love, with production that threads Monáe’s left-of-center sensibilities with the pulse of the diaspora. ‘Phenomenal’ boasts an infectious amapiano beat that matches the swagger of Monáe and MC Doechii’s performances clearly feeding off each other: “I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself/ And we’re all fine as fuck.” Even better are songs like ‘The Ocean’ and ‘The Rush’ (the latter featuring assists from Amaarae and Nia Long), whose lush airiness has a distinct musical character the record sometimes lacks.

    As enjoyable as it is, there are moments when the album’s reliance on reggae and funk tropes can feel a little thin. Monáe is under no obligation to keep playing to the role of a genre-bending multi-hyphenate, and their weaving of influences here, often by means of interpolation, is actually refreshingly subtle. But some attempts at being subversive, like ‘Only Have Eyes 42’, come off a little too quaint in the context of a record that’s often explicit without always being bold, at least on a sonic level. (‘Lipstick Lover’ is a good song, but it’s no ‘Pynk’.) Leaving something to be desired is the last thing Monáe would want, so ending the record on a more tender note with ‘Only Have Eyes 42’ bleeding into ‘A Dry Red’ is a smart choice that makes it feel a little more complete. There’s nothing frivolous about the whole thing; you can still trace a narrative flow, and the comfort derived from it is more than purely physical. You can’t really question The Age of Pleasure‘s utopic vision, but so long as you follow the light – and especially for those already devoted – the rush is guaranteed.

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    The Age of Pleasure might be an unusually straightforward title for a Janelle Monáe album – the record itself prizes immediate gratification more than any of the singer-songwriter-actor's previous efforts – but it didn't exactly come out of nowhere. There were hints on 2018's Dirty...Album Review: Janelle Monáe, 'The Age of Pleasure'