Marci Cohen, Assistant Head, Music Library, Boston University
The 2016 deaths of David Bowie and Prince were tragic for music fans everywhere, but must have put a lot of pressure on Janelle Monáe. Lots of musicians have taken inspiration from those two music and style icons, but Monáe is the heir-apparent to both, and not just for the depths of talent. All three artists are musical explorers, unbound by genre pigeonholes, and have flirted with androgyny. Like Prince, she is sex-positive and knows how to bring the funk. Like Bowie, she creates concepts and characters with her albums. Prince served as a mentor, dueting with her on 2013’s Electric Lady and offering suggestions for the overall sound of her 2018 album Dirty Computer and the equipment needed to achieve that. Like Bowie with his mime training, Monáe’s background in musical theater helps explain the deliberate efforts behind her visual presentation and live performance. No wonder she namechecks Bowie on her latest album The Age of Pleasure, boasting “They say I look better than David Bowie in a moonage dream,” on the track “Haute.”
After several EPs in the ‘00s, Monáe released her debut album The Archandroid in 2010. The Age of Pleasure marks her fourth full-length. Over the years, she has earned eight Grammy nominations but also established herself as more than just a musician. In film, she had notable turns acting in 2016’s Hidden Figures and Moonlight and last year’s Glass Onion, the second in the Knives Out Series. Her 2019 induction speech for Janet Jackson for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame no doubt made Trent Reznor thankful to have spoken earlier about the Cure because she was such a tough act to follow. Collaborating with other authors, she wrote a well-received 2022 short story collection The Memory Librarian loosely based on Dirty Computer. 2023 sees her returning her focus to her music.
Where Monáe was once literally buttoned up, donning a uniform of tuxedos, The Age of Pleasure is an album about letting go and luxuriating, as exemplified by her swimming topless on the album cover. The album is about indulgence, dripping in sex, about the meeting of flesh with flesh. Monáe is a pansexual non-binary artist who intentionally keeps mum about the specifics of who she dates, but she sings unambiguously about attraction to women. “Lipstick Lover” describes the sensual acts that turn her on. “The Rush” about the thrill of attraction and its bodily manifestations of that, telling a “pretty girl” that “I want your leg against my thigh.” “Water Slide” offers an extended metaphor on “Come on in/the water feels fine,” while making it clear that she’s not really talking about a swimming pool. She sings about a threesome on “Only Have Eyes 42.” Closing track “A Dry Red,” entices her lover to “whine for me.” Grace Jones, a predecessor who merges being otherworldly and sexy, gets a guest vocal on “Oooh La La.” While Prince isn’t the only musical inspiration, his songs like “Kiss” are an obvious antecedent.
The Age of Pleasure offers musical and topical variety. Monáe has abandoned the Afrofuturists themes of her previous albums, a term coined by culture critic Greg Tate to encompass science fiction that imagines a different future for Black people. Instead, it is libidinal, dripping in sex, but it’s also for the brain and the ears with complex arrangements and tracks on other subjects. The album opens with “Float,” an anthem of thriving, about rising above the naysayers and troubles of the past. But it’s also about learning to ignore the voices inside her own head of self-doubt and limitation. Seun Kuti, son of Afropop legend Fela, and Egypt 80, provide the slinky backing. Bolstered by synthesizers and horns, the bouncy, syncopated “Champagne S***” mixes high and low, with vocals that are alternatingly gritty and soaring. “Phenomenal,” which features Doechii, also brims with self-confidence, taunting “B*****, say it to my face” juxtaposed against the declaration of the song’s title. Tracks have unique identities but flow seamlessly from one to the next. “Know Better,” featuring CKay Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, incorporates Afrobeat elements. While “Lipstick Lover” hints at reggae, “Only Have Eyes 42” dives headfirst into lovers’ rock, the genre’s romantic strain. She skips the funk that has turned up on previous albums but draws on R&B and pop with varied, complex arrangements.
As with Jessie Ware’s recent That! Feels Good!, Monáe’s album taps into a post-COVID zeitgeist of wanting to be in close contact with other bodies for a good time, for hedonistic indulgence. Monáe is easy to root for with her ambitious artistic aims and support for the queer community. She’s justifiably held up as a unique visionary. But she is grasping at the great blockbuster that continues to just elude her. She’s had similar flashes of brilliance previously with the James Brown funk of “Tightrope” on The Archandroid and the Prince funk of “Make Me Feel” on Dirty Computer. The Age of Pleasure is yet another solid and distinctive album that lacks a consistent batch of undeniable hits. Nothing feels like filler, but nothing feels like a classic banger. Five albums into her career, Monáe still hasn’t peaked or met her full potential. In an era of disposable pop stars, it is refreshing to see an artist continue to grow rather than being spit out by the music industry and star-making machinery. Plenty of has-beens ran out of creative gas, but she has a full tank and knows how to refuel. Just as Prince and David Bowie took a while to hit their strides, Monáe still hasn’t made her Purple Rain or The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, commercial and critical successes that defined their times. But it seems inevitable that she’ll get there even if she hasn’t with The Age of Pleasure.