The Age of Pleasure by Janelle Monáe review: an exposé of sticky summer hedonism

Unsurprisingly, context is an important factor in a person’s experience when listening to music. Hearing a song or an album in a certain environment, emotionally or physically, can change the way that you engage with music. Marvin Gaye’s Hear My Dear is probably a terrible way to soundtrack a first date whereas the music of artists like Clairo or Bruno Major would fit perfectly into that environment. I mention this because the first time I listened to Janelle Monáe’s The Age of Pleasure I was sunbathing in a field on one of the hottest days of the year. It is an album that thrives when it is able to revel in its sticky summer hedonism and the listener feels compelled to do the same.

It drips in warm indulgences and loose afro-futuristic instrumentals

Of course, this is not to imply that Monáe’s music up to this point has been drab ballads, songs like ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ and ‘Make Me Feel’ were both electric songs that had this pure energy behind them but they were also making statements both about the pleasurable indulgences that Monáe has in life but also how they feel entitled to do that regardless of any restrictions placed upon them. But it is different on The Age Of Pleasure. Monáe has given up the idea that they are entitled to these things and will simply engage in them regardless of the consequences. The same approach is used for the use of lore that defined a lot of Monáe’s earlier work.

Whilst the Metropolis-inspired tale Monáe has crafted casts a shadow over the project it is much more of an afterthought than it has been on albums like The Archandroid (2010) where it was the album’s focal point. If the album were viewed through the stories that Monáe has been weaving then it would be no more than a glorified side quest, but this is not the case. It drips in warm indulgences and loose afro-futuristic instrumentals. On top of this, each song seamlessly flows into one another to such an extent that, unless you were consulting the track list rigorously, you probably wouldn’t notice.

It’s the perfect soundtrack to all the emotions and actions that Monáe is desiring to engage in

Tracks like ‘Black Sugar Beach’ and ‘Oooh La La’ serve as short, transitional tracks that almost feel like little snippets that you would hear at a random beach party, particularly the latter which features Grace Jones speaking French in a way that is simultaneously casual and dripping in seduction, almost as if you can see her with a cocktail in hand murmuring the words in the sunset.

However, if there is one song that is able to fully encapsulate the ethos of Monáe on The Age of Pleasure it is the song ‘Lipstick Lover’. Both the song and the video comprise of a mix of grainy film shots and footage of people in the throes of a party depicting a series of lustful sexual encounters. No one needs to exchange personal details or philosophies, simply a desire to “feel ya lips on mine”. The reverberated vocals exist in a peaceful bliss alongside a simple drum pattern and guitar strumming as if someone is starting to freestyle them in the middle of all these steamy moments but somehow instead, most times when someone starts playing an instrument at a party the results aren’t a half-hearted rendition of ‘Wonderwall’ but actually a smooth, tropical song. It’s the perfect soundtrack to all the emotions and actions that Monáe is desiring to engage in.

In many ways, Monáe’s most recent album is a much more relaxed output. She has no concern in making statements and much more in “tryna’ catch that feelin’” and embracing the moment around them. Unlike other summer-y albums that could be seen as a substantial change for the artist, such as Lorde’s Solar Power (2021) which tries to balance the fun of the New Zealand sun with the emptiness of modern-day spiritualism, the death of her dog, and climate change causing it to feel like too much and nothing all at once, Monáe solely focuses on the fun that she is having and the power of that on its own – there’s never a moment where they turn to the listener and go “hey, I know I’m having a great time but there is also a statement behind some of this,” because there is no need. When you’re having as beautiful a time as they are, there is no desire to make a political statement, merely to let your amazing-sounding enjoyment speak for itself.

Recommended listening: ‘Phenomenal’ (feat. Doechii)




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