wed 19/06/2024

Album: Janelle Monáe - The Age of Pleasure | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Janelle Monáe - The Age of Pleasure

Album: Janelle Monáe - The Age of Pleasure

Monáe's turn for the saucy marks a true creative renaissance

'It really is non-stop sauce'

There’s been a good deal of discussion on “the socials” about how much Janelle Monáe’s sexy image is a new thing or a big deal.

Casual viewers, still stuck on the suit-wearing image with which she crashed into public consciousness in 2010, have acted shocked at her going almost or completely unclad in recent videos and shoots. In turn fans have pointed out the obvious – that her outré sense of fashion and costumery has manifested in many ways over the years, including in plenty of flesh-baring. 

However, while her looks may have pre-empted it, artistically Monáe really has made a dramatic turn for the saucy on this record. Where her previous work had been bristling with crunchy conceptualism, sci-fi scenarios and intense politics, on The Age of Pleasure – as the title suggests – that focus is more or less entirely on pleasures of the flesh, with loose and fluid grooves ramping up the sense of hedonism to wig-spinning levels. 

Where Monáe had before leant very strongly to a Prince-beholden spiky type of funk, often mixed with new wave and on edge indie-electronics, here the music is an effortless fusion of reggae, disco, trap, Brazilian sounds, Afrobeat (the presence of Fela Kuti’s son Seun and his band on a couple of tracks is a touchstone). 

There’s a magic moment early on, in “Phenomenal”, where the distinctive “log drum” synthesiser of the South African house music variant amapiano is slipped into a Latin-jazz groove as if it was always meant to be there. It’s an immensely cool thing to do by any standards, but it is there not as a “reference” but because it works: for the pleasure principle. Likewise the 70s reggae of “Only Have Eyes 42” gets ever more lavish, with layers of strings and reverb piling on to overwhelming effect, but again it seems completely in keeping with the mood of the song, it’s instinctually right. 

Lyrically the record is, bar a little self-realisation stuff at the start, absolute smut. Which is not to say it’s lost any of the crackling intellect of Monáe’s previous records – the poly-entendres and extended water metaphors running through the record offer up endless delight as you unpick them on repeat listens. But it really is non-stop sauce. Even a list of swimming strokes is so charged it'll make steam come out of your ears.

What’s fascinating is that it’s almost exactly the opposite of porn: there’s practically zero visual objectification of the, uh, objects of her lust, whether female (mostly), male or unspecified. Rather it’s about the relentless feeling – the “Rush” as a song title has it – of desire and its satiation. The same goes for the self-realisation songs: this isn’t about working for self-acceptance, it’s about the actual feeling of self love (and, let’s be frank, self-lust too). It’s a flipping of hip hop braggadocio from possessiveness to radical satisfaction, and that is no small achievement.  

This is only a short record – of the 14 songs, few are over three minutes – but it is a masterpiece. For all that sex talk, though you wouldn’t want to play it to workmates or children, it feels oddly un-prurient, so completely confident is it in itself. And that confidence has given Monáe a musical focus that completely blows away the occasionally over-egged, over-conceptualised sprawl of previous albums, and gives us an album that is no less complex, that rewards repeat plays, but is an instantly joyous experience from first play. It may well make you blush, but it is her best album, and is an extraordinary transformation.

@joemuggs

Listen to "Float (Dance Edit)":

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