Album Review: Janelle Monáe – The Age Of Pleasure

Ooh La La! The pop polymath ushers in hedonism on her reggae-tinged fourth LP

Taylor Swift may have her eras, but Janelle Monáe has her ages. As the pop polymath returns with her first album in five years, you better buckle up. This is The Age Of Pleasure.

Half a decade ago, Dirty Computer, though not on the sci-fi scale of 2010’s The ArchAndroid, still saw the singer, rapper and actress define her identity like modules of a machine, all fit within the cog systems of wider society. Its Prince-like pops, clicks and licks helped oil the complex workings of her sound.

But on The Age Of Pleasure, the joints are loose and flowy as the body becomes a vessel for pure pleasure. It’s a point spelled out in the album’s title and reinforced its opening track ‘Flow’, a song plump and bursting with a summery, feel-good lightness. “I used to walk into the room head down/ I don’t walk, now I float” she breathes with a sigh of liberating relief.

Yes, Janelle Monáe is on her ‘Champagne Sh*t’, as she tells us as the opener blends seamlessly into the dubby and brassy second offering. It’s one of those phrases that makes complete and no sense at the same time – the next ‘Hot Girl Summer’, perhaps – a feeling of total, sexy confidence that empowers you to go after whatever pleasure drifts your way. (It’s significant that this song was at one point intended to be called ‘Champagne Machine’. We’re human, remember?)

Janelle Monáe - Lipstick Lover (CLEAN) [Official Music Video]

Pretty much every track is a reminder – to herself, to the listener – to swig this Champagne Sh*t down, to repeat that you’re phenomenal, to look into the mirror and say yes I’m sexy and leave a lipstick mark on your way out. “This is our oasis made with love,” the singer wrote in a statement, “rooted in self-acceptance, throbbing in self-discovery, and signed with cherry red kisses from me to you.” Throughout The Age Of Pleasure, Monáe contorts the pitch and timbre of her versatile vocal range to reflect this metamorphosis.

Of course, telling your listeners to feel good in their bodies only goes so far if the sounds don’t do the same. They do.

Just as Kaytraminé played their debut LP to friends at a party to test it out, Monáe took a similar approach, putting the lit in litmus test. “If the songs can’t work at the party, they’re not going on the album,” she told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 in May. “I want it to be so specific to this Pan-African crowd who are my friends. I want it to be a love letter to the diaspora. And if they f*ck with it, it’s good. I’m great.”

Tying each song together fluidly with a backbone of African beats helps achieve this while creating an irresistible mix that luxuriate in their own sonic pleasure. Blissful reggae bops on the likes of ‘Lipstick Lover’, ‘Only Have Eyes 42’ and passionately French interlude ‘Ooh La La’, while Latin guitars give a sun-kissed weariness to closer ‘A Dry Red’. South African beats meet traditional Afrobeat in the vogue-worthy ‘Phenomenal’.

Sexy is clearly in for summer, and though the concept is less complex that previous endeavours, The Age Of Pleasure is no-less coherent and full of surprises, sensuous surprises.

Released: 9 June 2023
Label: Venice Music
On Tour: TBC