“How are you preparing for the age of pleasure?” an off-camera interviewer asks a set of spring break revellers in a trailer for Janelle Monáe‘s fourth studio album. The answers range from “going to therapy” to “wearing whatever I want, whenever the fuck I want”. But the ultimate response to that question is listening to Monáe follow-up to 2018’s ‘Dirty Computer’. An Afrobeats and disco-laced 14-track joy ride, ‘The Age Of Pleasure’ positions the pursuit of unabashed delight at its centre.
In a post-pandemic world still tense with the remnants of such unprecedented times, Monáe’s latest record beckons its listeners into a fresh era of delight. Still, the songwriter, rapper and actress didn’t reach this stage overnight. Her ability to stand naked, literally and figurately, in front of the world didn’t come without a a bold inner shift that was achieved through a journey of radical self-acceptance. As she sings in the opening lines of the track ‘Float’: “No, I’m not the same.”
Monáe first stormed onto the scene in 2010 with ‘The ArchAndroid’, a sparkling, sci-fi inspired 70-minute epic that delved in and out of genres and positioned the now-37-year-old as a creative supernova. Then there was 2013’s ‘The Electric Lady’, a sprawling collection of songs split into two suites that also told the stories of Monáe’s invented world. With ‘Dirty Computer’, however, she headed back to earth, foreshadowing a brazen, electro-pop-backed desire to be “young, black, wild, free”. Though they’d been exploring the themes of that album for 10 years prior its release, Monáe felt safer packaging herself in metaphors. Only now is she truly ready to share and celebrate her queer, Black experience with the world.
If ‘Dirty Computer’ was a voyage home for Monáe, then ‘The Age Of Pleasure’ is a victory lap celebrating the spoils that only come by embracing your full self. Album opener ‘Float’ is an ode to relaxation where she confidently repeats: “I don’t walk, I float”. Horns back this affirmation by way of Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80, and the grooves are amplified with the help of sharply-delivered lines like: “They said I was bi / Yeah, baby, I’m by a whole ‘nother coast”. In ‘Lipstick Lover’, Monáe gets straight to the point over a swaggering beat: her velvety vocals ask sweetly for someone to “whisper in my ear; only me and you can hear” at one point, and for “a little tongue, we don’t have long” at another.
Brass and bass spiral in ‘Black Sugar Beach’ before merging in sensual arrangements that tell the story of the album with little to no lyrical assistance. ‘Phenomenal’, which features rapper Doechii, opens with the words, “I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself / And we’re all fine as fuck” over staggered, lush orchestration. This line could serve as the thesis for a collection of tracks that exemplify Monáe in her fullness, embracing every aspect of themselves and finding great pleasure in it. Though the album features multiple guests who are all in attendance at this pleasure party (brisk interlude ’The French 75’ features Sister Nancy, ’The Rush’ gets assists from Amaarae and Nia Long, while the hypnotic-yet-swift ‘Ooh La La’ has Grace Jones speaking seductively in French), the main attraction here is clearly Monáe.
In a recent interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Monáe emphasised the importance of joy – particularly given the current political climate that aims to disenfranchise “[the] trans family and the LGBTQI+ communities, and even Black folks… of course we fight, but even in the middle of the fight, we take time to find joy”. Poet Toi Derricotte once wrote that joy is in fact an “act of resistance”: listening to Monáe’s liberating latest album, you start to believe that pleasure is, too.
Release date: June 9
Record label: Wondaland Arts Society/ Atlantic Records