Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

The Age of Pleasure doesn't float up to Janelle Monáe’s previous masterpieces

"The Age of Pleasure"

Release date: 09 June 2023
Janelle Monae The Age of Pleasure Art
08 June 2023, 11:12 Written by Sam Franzini

Author, actress, icon: Janelle Monáe has done enough in her 16-year career to become a generation-defining star.

Beginning in 2007 with the Metropolis: Suite I EP, Monáe has been steadily crafting an extensive, cinematic world on the themes of Afrofuturism, assuming the persona of Cindi Mayweather, a cyborg outcast in the futuristic city of Metropolis. Set in the year 3005, her 2010 debut The ArchAndroid and 2013’s follow-up The Electric Lady follow Mayweather as she’s hunted, sexualised, ostracised, eventually finding the courage to leave the city. Combining funk, soul, pop, hip-hop, psychedelic rock, soul, and other subgenres, in my opinion they’re two of the most ambitious and well-executed concept albums of all time.

This led to 2018’s Dirty Computer, which lost out on the GRAMMY award for Album of the Year in what had to be a second-place finish. The album was not only Monáe’s breakthrough to a larger audience, but also served as the time where she peeled away the robot persona and began to make music as herself. The cyborg wasn’t totally gone, of course: the title stems from likening herself to a computer, dirtied by identities like queerness, race, religion, and gender. This was the most personal collection of songs we’ve gotten from her – delving into sexuality, society, and Monáe’s place in the music industry – until now.

The Age of Pleasure has no pretenses; there’s no required reading to do before listening. This was evidently clear from the first two singles from the album, also two of the album’s best songs. The previously mentioned “Float” is a “Django Jane”-like braggadocious soul number filled with horns reintroducing herself to a wider audience – “I thank God I changed,” she admits. “Lipstick Lover” is an unabashedly queer, reggae jam ready for summertime. “For your love, I’ll take my time,” she sings, before dreaming of one’s lipstick marking her neck.

These songs, and most of what comprises The Age of Pleasure, are ...fine. “Champagne Shit” is a funky track celebrating an excess of wealth, “Phenomenal” uplifts a pretty circle of friends, and she hints at polyamory with the romantic “Only Have Eyes 42.” But a Janelle Monáe album that’s just fine isn’t only disappointing, it’s a little perplexing that a collection attached to her name is so immediately lacking in depth. Sure, the album feels like the freest Monáe has been, singing about partying, friends, and love with pure abandon, but this feeling is drawn through in songs that, really, are lackluster and don’t aim to surprise. The closest, perhaps, she gets to new territory (other than the queer references lacing the entire album) is when she explores gender identity in “Phenomenal” with the line “A bitch look pretty, a bitch look handsome.”

Not only do these songs struggle to connect to any broader meaning, but Monáe’s writing here is unusually one-dimensional. “I look into your eyes and I get that rush, maybe ‘cause tonight I’m gonna be your crush,” she sings on the soft-spoken track “The Rush;” “Phenomenal” feels like a track that was cut from Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE for being too on-the-nose, with its cries of a woman who’s “so cunt, they wanna be her;” a major mood-killer ensues when “A Dry Red” opens with “Hey, baby, let me plant my seed;” and it’s difficult to resist sighing when “Haute” resorts into Instagram-ready Lizzo-isms (“Rollin around with my besties, skin looking good ‘cuz we stress-free”).

A major selling point of The Age of Pleasure is in its title – let’s just have fun with this one! – but hasn’t Monáe always balanced societal commentary while remaining upbeat? The frenzied, bouncy beats of “Americans,” “Crazy, Classic, Life” and “Dance Apocalyptic” all underscore themes of American capitalism and life, the trio of “Dance or Die”, “Faster” and “Locked Inside” are all deeply personal narratives introducing us to Cindi Mayweather’s world while remaining uniquely momentous, and “Q.U.E.E.N.” is probably the best example of this, its irresistible funk pairing with lyrics about resisting self-categorisation. The Age of Pleasure, however, is fun without any added context, which could be valid on its own but it feels like a step back for Monáe. To be clear, it’s not necessary for music in 2023 to take a stance, to be inherently political, but coming from Monáe whose entire catalog has been branded as ‘music with a purpose,’ it’s an odd maneuver.

At only 32 minutes and housing five interludes, The Age of Pleasure is slim on ideas and music. It would be more successful if she followed the same pattern of zinging between genre and form effortlessly like on Dirty Computer, but this record largely sticks to reggae and funk, leading to a slower, more lax mood. There are some fine deviations: “Champagne Shit / Black Sugar Beach” demonstrate Monáe’s ability to create exciting, redirecting album transitions; “Only Have Eyes 42” and “A Dry Red” are smooth, R&B closures, the former having some of the album’s best and most romantic lines – she admits, “I try to love with my eyes closed, I try not to lead with my ego,” and pleads, “Feel your ocean come to my moon, let our rain become a monsoon.” “Water Slide” is hypnotic, too, but its likening of water to sex gets tired by the chorus, especially when she starts to list off swimming techniques like the back stroke.

The Age of Pleasure is Janelle Monáe’s first album that doesn’t feel vital or year-defining. There’s no need to parse through the lyrics, searching for hidden clues, an interlocking story, or anything that brings the record out of the realm of ‘just music.’ The ArchAndroid and its follow-ups are monumental, ambitious projects whose worldbuilding creates peaks, valleys, and storylines — The Age of Pleasure is just an album. Janelle Monáe is a genius, but you wouldn’t know it listening to her latest release.

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