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Janelle Monáe
The Age Of Pleasure CJ Thorpe-Tracey , June 16th, 2023 07:17

There may be no grandiose sci-fi worldbuilding here, but Monáe's latest is still a deeply sensual listening experience, finds CJ Thorpe-Tracey

Janelle Monáe is making a habit of leaving it half a decade between albums of Afro-futurist world-building glory, at least in part, I guess, because music making is only one element of their hugely successful portfolio career. But now The Age Of Pleasure finally shows up, it doesn’t feel at all like another chapter, woven into Monáe’s usual multi-faceted sci-fi universe. Instead this album slinks in, like a heady intermission from the film altogether – and an intermission that’s basically (and very enjoyably) all about the fucking.

Not about the length, though. The Age Of Pleasure clocks in at just over thirty-two minutes, and has the feel of an ecstatic moment grabbed in the summer-heated ocean of our current culture, rather than the kind of all-encompassing, off-kilter mission statement that Monáe has left us with before.

‘Champagne Shit’ sets out the stall: a swaggering strut that effortlessly sets up the summer heat, the booze, the vaycay, the rolling seduction and the reckless abandon. All paying no mind to witnesses who’ll get rich selling photos of misbehaviour. This ‘fuck you utopia’ vibe – and the vague career contextualising of the line “don’t ask me shit about work” – immediately sends me back to Lorde’s 2021 career-swerve third album Solar, which was also built on the scaffold of a sultry high-summer spent poolside and on the beach (though Lorde’s holibobs are more stoned, with nothing like as much pure raunch).

Half these songs are less than two minutes long. And where, in the past, one could accuse Monáe’s work of being dry and calculating, where Dirty Computer juddered and skittered about (intentionally, machine-hewn after all) all proggy stop-and-start; The Age Of Pleasure just dives in and gets it on with all these gorgeous bods. Instead of trying to stretch out ideas, Janelle plops each one into the pool as a whole track, and moves on. It’s gone before you realise it got going.

I mean, it’s still Janelle Monáe. Occasionally, the effort in appearing effortless does poke through the fantasy. You’ll hear that declamatory, slightly rehearsed actorly tone that Monáe often brings. On ‘Phenomenal’ there’s one spoken timbre for: “I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself and we’re all fine as fuck,” then an entirely different timbre for: “say it to my face, bitch, say it to my face!” which sounds weirdly ultra-threatening for a second, until you clock that the protagonist is just fishing for naked compliments. If SZA had sang that, within seconds there’d be a body count. Luckily, breakout hip hop swamp princess Doechii shows up to add yet another timbre – stealing the song, somewhat.

Pop music is awash with self-love and self-empowerment, sometimes brilliant (thank you Lizzo, Self Esteem, and, yes, Megan Thee Stallion, too) but often veering into familiar tropes, now the business has realised it sells. On ‘Phenomenal’ and elsewhere, the angle of the self-love schtick is rawly physical, and it actually works great for being so sexualised, while sitting beautifully within this hot global party thing. ‘Water Slide’ brings this to apotheosis and almost drowns in wet metaphor. Dear reader, you will loosen your collar.

There’s a recent episode of nihilistic animated comedy Rick And Morty (stick with me here) in which Beth Smith, Morty’s mother, has a passionate affair with a clone of herself, another identical Beth Smith, whose only difference is she’s been off travelling into the multiverse, having adventures, instead of stuck at home married to a boring schlub. The two Beths develop a close sisterly friendship that suddenly explodes into crazy lust. Although it’s done for laughs and can’t quite escape the male gaze of the show’s creators, unexpectedly this bottled-up love affair becomes one of the most singularly uplifting narratives, from a TV show that is otherwise perhaps the most brutally dystopian you’ll find anywhere.

Anyway, that is what this reminds me of. Not just the song, the whole record. In the context of Monáe’s bleaker output. “If I could could fuck me right here, right now, I would do that,” they exult.

Much of the production and vibe-mastery on The Age Of Pleasure is drawn from outside the global north. Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 show up early doors for the opening track ‘Float’ and they’ll make another appearance later on. Again, that isn’t especially cutting-edge right now, since we’re deep into the post-Wakanda era of cross-diaspora fertilisation and global renaissance. But it’s delicious to hear it thrown about with abandon.

The opening verse of ‘Haute’ – playing with ‘haute’ and ‘hot’ – has an odd, forced breath vocal fry pronunciation of the word at the end of the line, and also of ‘sexy’. I heard this vocal, the whole track even, as an affectionate kiss-off of UK glitch, specifically what Charli XCX has done in modern hyperpop. Especially coupled with the Brit-rock trolling lyric: “They say I look better than David Bowie in a moonage dream,” before the song collapses into its Grace Jones guest slot coda, a snapshot of conversation in French.

Having been a consistent – if moderate – skeptic of Monáe’s work as a music artist, over many years, now they’ve got all sexed up for this one, I’m surprised by how purely enjoyable I’m finding this album. Possibly, I love it more than it deserves.

It’s not the relentless sexiness, though that’s fine – awesome even – rather, it’s how relaxed and summery it all is, heard in total. Monáe’s mostly convincing pretence at chill is fabulous. This is easily the musical iteration of Janelle Monáe I most admire, out of their whole career. Holiday Janelle beats hard-work Janelle. On earlier records and tours, for example when they’ve leaned hardest into attempting a Prince-style ‘uber-drilled technician’ jag, it never quite landed for me. In 2019 at Primavera Sound we found ourselves leaving after forty minutes, a bit bored. Monáe is a very, very talented artist but the less important ‘honed craft’ aspects of their stance and stage-show – that is, voice, choreography, costume, tightness, all that bullshit – somewhat wrested controls of the ship from its heart. And at the same time, never quite got there, in terms of sheer perfection, just not quite taut enough, to make it work. Especially when the narrative so insistently veered between pure showbiz and a convoluted space-opera. But now, none of those details and intricacy seem to matter. Artificial or not, their powerful sense of cutting loose, embracing horny utopian joy, on The Age Of Pleasure, works far better for me.

I mean, it helps that Monáe’s still got all that dazzle in the locker. There’s plenty of intricacy in the intimacy of this record. In the end, though, The Age Of Pleasure is an easier ride. Less densely packed with ideas but it’s no bother.

As Monáe cavorts, swimming down through people’s legs, on the cover image, I think briefly of Halle Bailey leaping into superstardom, playing Ariel in Disney’s live action reboot of The Little Mermaid and dealing with the vast, complex, worldwide reaction to her breakout movie role. Perhaps Janelle Monáe's parallel notion of holiday underwater fuck-fest as queer black liberation is a vital, life-saving iteration of utopia, at least for right now.