Album Review: Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure

[Wondaland Arts Society/Atlantic; 2023]

Of course Janelle Monáe has always been impossibly cool, but tracing the development of their music career is somewhat akin to that Hollywood trope of the nerd taking off their glasses to reveal – shock! – they’ve been sexy the whole time. When Monáe emerged, sporting a Little Richard quiff and shirts buttoned up to the neck, they were an oddball, affiliated with the Atlanta rap world through their contacts but showing a breadth of sound that made them impossible to place. Oh yeah, and they were singing about cyborgs in an imaginary future. Second album Electric Lady saw them start to inject a bit more sass into this sci-fi setting, but it was after their entry into the film world that we started to see more skin from Monáe. Dirty Computer was their uneven first entry into the pop sphere, and now we have The Age Of Pleasure, their unabashed homecoming in the world of provocative and unfiltered fun.

What was once hidden behind long sleeves and buttoned-up shirts is now proudly on display (if you think the video for “Lipstick Lover” is explicit, check inside the vinyl edition of The Age Of Pleasure). This is all the more necessary given the amount of sex being had across this album. The cyborg concept is all but forgotten; this is about skin-to-skin contact, about feeling the breath of another, about making hairs stand on end. Gone are the grandiose proclamations of their earlier work like “we’ll write our names in fire on each other’s heart” or “your magic mind makes love to mind”; instead we have cut-to-the-chase propositions like “give me head if you wanna” and “you and me can fuck in that jacuzzi”.

Monáe seems to make abstract reference to this in The Age Of Pleasure’s opening track “Float”, where they begin the album with the claim “No I’m not the same / I think I done changed”. The lack of clothes is just a fraction of the weight that has been lifted off them as they’ve entered their proudly sexual self – now they don’t walk, they float. Aided by Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, “Float” introduces us to the newly proud Monáe, which unspools across the remainder of the record.

The horns from the opener carry into “Champagne Shit” and similar melodies pop up throughout the record, providing an African breeze to temper the Caribbean rhythms and the downright steaminess expressed throughout. From “Champagne Shit”, which finds Monáe celebrating their sexual prowess, we segue through the shuffle of “Black Sugar Beach” (in a slick style shift reminiscent of their earlier epics) and then on to “Phenomenal” which is, well, yet more self-celebration. “I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself and we’re all fine as fuck” they announce, before jetting off on a further exploration of the “mystic, sexy creature” they are. It’s a theme that continues into “Haute”, where they mesmerisingly repeat affirmations like “a bitch look good / a bitch look haute” over a percussively demanding ballroom-type production.

This continual self-satisfaction might be tiring if Monáe and the production didn’t make it feel so freeing. When they sing “I feel so phenomenal” or “I’m feeling so sexy”, it doesn’t necessarily feel like Monáe saying “look at me!”, it’s more like an invitation for the listener to join them in the mirror and praise oneself for all the beauty we each individually possess.

With the self-congratulatory opening section of The Age of Pleasure out of the way, the record moves – via an interlude with a flirtatious, French-speaking Grace Jones – to the part of the album that finds Monáe utilising their sexiness to attract others. The Caribbean lilt of “Lipstick Lover” might have seemed a bit lightweight when singled out, but in the midst of the record, it slows things down perfectly and lets us imagine two bodies entwined, their hips swaying hypnotically in motion.

That puts us into perfect stead for “The Rush”, a splashy, humid sampling of low-lit funk where Monáe unfolds exactly what they want to do to another: “Skin to skin, I wanna take my time / Break it in, I wanna make you mine.” As hearts start to beat through the surface, Amaarae pops in to add a teasing verse that breaks through the tension and into the moment of intimacy: “Fuckin’ you like it’s my destiny”.

Via another interstitial track, this time featuring Sister Nancy, we enter the album’s third act: satisfaction. “Water Slide” is pure paradise and pleasure, inviting us to revel in swimming, sand and more sex; “baby dive in, the water feels fine”. Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 return with a fanfare on the following “Know Better”, their horns introducing the album’s most tense song, with Monáe and a potential lover circling each other, waiting to pounce. Guest vocalist Ckay and Monáe bounce off each other across the steamy scene (“Come here now stranger / Gimme that sense of danger”), that anticipation of tearing each other’s clothes off bringing a sharp edge to the sexiness. 

If there is a weaker section of The Age Of Pleasure it is arguably the final tracks, where we feel like we’re in a bit of a post-coital come down – but that’s not a bad place to be. “Paid in Pleasure”, with its repetitious “Pleasure! Pleasure! Pleasure!” feels a bit like overkill given all the unmitigated delight that’s been had already on the record. “Only Have Eyes 42” is a classy change of gear but ultimately a light rewrite of The Flamingos’ classic with a few more modern bells and whistles. The acoustic finale “A Dry Red” feels like the last evening of a hedonistic holiday; your body’s exhausted, practically humped dry, and the return to the real world is lurking in the background. Still, when Monáe offers “Come and find me in an hour / Meet me in the back near the shower” it’s impossible to resist one final fling in the warm summer air.

At 32 minutes, The Age of Pleasure is less than half the length of Monáe’s more expansive and adventurous early albums. This is another major change in their musical output, but it’s clear that Monáe is more interested in having a good time, rather than a long time, and this album finishes right when it needs to. Any longer and there might be a genuine risk of someone having a hernia from all the physical carousing. As it is, we leave this magical island fully refreshed and filled with self satisfaction.