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The Age of Pleasure has come under fire by some for being a deviation from what Janelle had done prior, and I find this interesting. Because this viewpoint speaks to just how much people identify Janelle Monáe with her debut album The ArchAndroid. Even though there were two albums which came after it, for which Janelle’s looks and attitudes towards how she chose to present herself through her art were changing. People really do forget that Dirty Computer was a whole album where Janelle shed Cindi Mayweather and declared that she was a free-ass motherfucker. So to me, The Age of Pleasure doesn’t feel like a departure or a shift at all. Based on Dirty Computer, of course Janelle’s next album had the potential to be something like this. And Janelle has always been honest and frank. Dirty Computer opened with “Crazy, Classic, Life”, where Janelle declared she just wanted to be carefree in how she expressed herself and be unapologetic in her pursuit of happiness. And The Age of Pleasure opens with “Float”, where some of Janelle’s first words are ‘I’m not the same’. I don’t know how much more clearer Janelle could have made it on either album that she was changing. But again, it really does speak to how much of an impression Janelle made on The ArchAndroid, that people still associate that version of her with who she is now, as though nothing happened in-between.

But I will admit. Whilst I wasn’t thrown by Janelle showing titties and being a hedonistic hussy in the video to “Lipstick Lover”, when I first listened to The Age of Pleasure, I thought very little of it. But when I gave it another listen some months later after seeing videos of Janelle on her supporting tour, something clicked. To such a degree that I asked myself when it was all said and done ‘Could this be one of Janelle’s better albums’?

Crazy. I know.

But let’s walk through the sprinklers with our titties out for a minute.

The ArchAndroid is still Janelle’s magnum opus. But what makes The Age of Pleasure so comparable is the world and the mood Janelle creates with it. The ArchAndroid wasn’t just a great album because it featured great songs. It was great because Janelle had created this whole world through her music which felt so rich, considered and really spoke to who she was. There was a laser focus in the story she wanted to tell. But the scope of her story may have backed her into a corner in a way she hadn’t anticipated, which would affect the two albums which would follow. Because The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer never quite managed to hold up in the same way. Resulting in both feeling like cases of Janelle realising that she didn’t really want to continue the story of The ArchAndroid, but feeling like she had to honour it in some way because it was so many people’s introduction to her. And in the midst of this, Janelle herself was also changing as a person. And whilst early on it was easy to take these stories as pure fiction, we now realise that the stories told through the albums actually mirror Janelle’s self discovery. They were always stories about her. And the common thread aside from Janelle experiencing change, is that the issues with people’s perceptions of her actually have nothing to do with her. The problem is always how the world chooses to frame her and its desire to always box and label. So when you look at the story of The ArchAndroid and Cindi Mayweather as a story about Janelle and not some separate tale, the path continues right into The Age of Pleasure. The ArchAndroid was an album about being trapped. The Electric Lady was an album about rebellion. Dirty Computer was an album about acceptance. The Age of Pleasure is an album about freedom. Retroactively there’s a cool Pinocchio-like narrative. The more Cindi discovered about the real world, the more she desired to not only be a real person, but a person who felt real and true to her, and she eventually became that.

The Age of Pleasure isn’t bound by the story of Cindi Mayweather, androids and the fight for freedom, because that story has already been told. So it gives Janelle a clean slate to create a whole new world that she wants to invite people into. The album opens and lays its manifesto clear from the offset. ‘I’m not the same, n***a. I think I done changed, n***a.’ And you can either accept it or you can move along. But as much as Janelle has changed in terms of how she chooses to present herself to the world, she is still the same creative wonder who is uncompromising in her vision. Janelle has never been about meeting your expectations. And whilst I completely get why some will not vibe with the Janelle they get on The Age of Pleasure, the unwillingness to accept who she is means that the story she was telling over all those years was very much true and still relevant; a refusal of acceptance for who she is. So the more you look at The Age of Pleasure in the grand scheme of Janelle’s career and albums, the more it actually does fit and feel connected.

As an album unto itself? Sure, it’s different. But in terms of Janelle creating a body of work which is reflective of where she’s at in life, it aligns with everything she’s always done. Back in 2010, she was like ‘Gurl. The system.’ In 2013, she was like ‘Gurl. The oppression.’ Now in 2023, she’s like ‘Gurl. Show me them titties.’

A shot of Janelle Monáe in her music video for “Water Slide”. Sitting by the pool as her friends lie on sun loungers behind her.
Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure | Wondaland Productions

Janelle Monáe is still Janelle Monáe. When I listen to The Age of Pleasure, it still sounds very much like a Janelle Monáe album. Yes, there is a shift. But it’s not one so extreme that it alienates me. And again, The Age of Pleasure is a continuation of a tapestry which Janelle started to weave from Dirty Computer. Did we really all just forget “Screwed”, “I Got the Juice” and “I Like That”?

As for the ‘It’s different’ of it all, traces of The ArchAndroid are still here. “Champagne Shit” could slot right into Suite III of The ArchAndroid alongside “Make the Bus” and “Wondaland”, Cindi’s trippy venture into a world unknown. “Phenomenal” sounds like the soundtrack to a heist by Cindi Mayweather. The album closer “A Dry Red” sounds like something Cindi would play on a gramophone before she puts that P-U55Y on Sir Greendown. The DNA of what Janelle’s sound has always been is still very much present.

But for how much I’m sitting here saying ‘Y’all just don’t get it’. I do get why this album is divisive for some. And unfortunately, I do think that this may end up being an album in Janelle’s discography that some will skip. So I really hope Janelle releases a The Age of Pleasure Tour live album or just gives the whole tour a home release, so that people can hear songs from the album alongside her older material in a curated manner, to realise that it fits within the world of Janelle Monáe and how much it forms the narrative of who she was and who she is. I do feel that the visual shift and the overt hedonism with The Age of Pleasure is distracting some folk from the music just ever-so-slightly. I’m cool with the titties, swimming pool and bikinis. BUT. I get why it would be off-putting to some, because this is a big shift, even from what we saw of Janelle in the music videos for Dirty Computer.

A shot of Janelle Monáe in her music video for “Water Slide”. Laying on a sun lounger, wearing an orange bikini with a top designed to look like orange slices
Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure | Wondaland Productions

With Dirty Computer, Janelle pretty much outed herself, confirming in interviews that she is pansexual. But despite the allusion to this ‘revelation’ in the music video to “Make Me Feel”, this wasn’t really flaunted on any of Dirty Computer’s songs. There was still some ambiguity if you were JUST listening to the songs. Even a song like “Pynk” could be interpreted as the relationship Janelle has with her own pussy, as opposed to the love and exploration of somebody else’. But on The Age of Pleasure, Janelle is throwing around girl’s, her’s and she’s the way Kiley Williams throws 2 piece chicken meals. There is no ambiguity or mistaking who Janelle has desires for, and it’s a bold move. There aren’t a great deal of Black pansexual women in music who are singing about their attraction to women. It shouldn’t be a big deal in 2023, but sexuality and the expression of it still remains an issue for some and something that can cost someone their career. Although women declaring love for other women seems far more acceptable to the straights than men declaring love for other men. Women on women is titillating. It subscribes to the male gaze. Where-as men on men is gross. It’s perverse. But Janelle really doesn’t care. It definitely colours the songs in a different way though. Especially because this is one of Janelle’s first albums where every song is about sexual pleasure and desires and THIS is the biggest change from what Janelle has put out before. More than anything else.

A shot of Janelle Monáe in her music video for “Water Slide”. Standing on the grass as somebody a few feet away holds up her braids, as people limbo underneath them.
Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure | Wondaland Productions

So, I am cool with the sound and the sex of The Age of Pleasure. I co-sign it all. My issue with this album, if you can even call it an issue, is how it and its songs are packaged, from a purely technical and product perspective.

Now, I am all for acts redefining what constitutes an album and playing around with the format. Especially in this weird age of music we’re in, where everything has gone digital and streaming is the primary way that most consume music. Yet physical formats are making a comeback all thanks to vinyls being a mass consumer thing again. So there’s more for artists to play with in terms of how they package their albums. Donna Summer was releasing albums in the 70s which had 6 songs, and them bitches was still longer than The Age of Pleasure. But I digress. The Age of Pleasure feels weird to me in terms of how it presents itself as ‘an album’. I know this is a strangely arbitrary thing to knock an album for, but it’s something that sticks with me.

The Age of Pleasure has fourteen tracks, but only offers thirty-two minutes of music. And only eight of these songs are ‘full length’ songs. And I say ‘full length’, because only two of them are longer than three minutes. An album with interludes and short musical passages is absolutely fine. And all of the music on The Age of Pleasure is great. There are ‘no skips’ as the kids say. But making some of these shorter songs separate songs doesn’t make sense to me. “Champagne Shit” and “Black Sugar Beach” should have just been one song. “Haute” and “Ooh La La” should have been made into one song. Then there are the song lengths. Again, “Champagne Shit” and “Black Sugar Beach” could have been combined to make a three and a half minute song. But, nope. Janelle could and should have pulled a FutureSex/LoveSounds, “Partition” and “Pure/Honey” by fusing songs. None of this really matters in the grand scheme of the listening experience of the album when you are running it from top to bottom, as every song seamlessly transitions from one to the next to such a degree that you wouldn’t know where one song began and the other ended, unless you were watching the media player. The album would sound the same no matter how the tracks were split or combined. But I do wonder if the decision to segment the album into 14 tracks was a label decision to make it ‘look’ more like a full LP, or if it was a creative one on Janelle’s part.

The biggest crime committed on this album when it comes to song lengths is on the album closer, “A Dry Red”. I was barely 20 seconds into the song and I knew it was my favourite song on the album. And then the damn thing started to fade out after one and a half minutes. I sighed, screwed up my face and took off my headphones. “A Dry Red” should have been a full four and half minute experience. Not just because it deserved to be. But because it would have given the album a conclusive ending. But because the song plays like an interlude, it doesn’t feel like an ending. So you are left like ‘Oh, is that it?’. “A Dry Red” either needed to be longer or be followed by another song. But for it to end the album the way in which it does, it just doesn’t work. And it also ends as though it’s going to transition into another song, just for it not to. For all of the stupidly short songs on the album, “A Dry Red” is the one which actually FEELS short and erroneously so. The other songs on The Age of Pleasure works because of their vibes and also how they are sequenced to play as one continuous mix. Where-as “A Dry Red” feels a little detached, which is all the more reason it should have been a definitive ending for the album.

A shot of Janelle Monáe in her music video for “Water Slide”. Pulling a pose, wearing a wide brim hat and an orange bikini with a top designed to look like orange slices.
Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure | Wondaland Productions

One thing which saves the album, yet simultaneously makes it unfortunate that some of the songs aren’t longer, is the production. It’s exquisite. Janelle’s trusted collaborators who have been along for the ride since the days of Metropolis: The Chase; Chuck Lightning, Nate Rocket Wonder & Roman GianArthur all come together to paint Janelle’s world with rich textures and sounds which bring it all to life. Every song evokes all of the fun and the sun that we see on the album cover and in the music videos for “Lipstick Lover” and “Water Slide”.

The Age of Pleasure is probably one of Janelle’s most sonically focused albums in terms of the genres which make it up. The ArchAndroid, The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer all touched on a plethora of genres; rock, soul, R&B, pop, funk and all of the overlaps and genres in-between, across different eras. Comparatively, The Age of Pleasure has a clear focus on soul and reggae, with Afrobeats and Amapiano coming through on songs such as “Paid in Pleasure” and “Phenomenal”. For an album about a summer frolic, it makes complete sense that The Age of Pleasure would zone in on these sounds. Nothing says carefree Summer like reggae with sprinkles of music from the continent.

The ArchAndroid, The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer all centred on afrofuturism, each being an interpretation or deconstruction of what that sounds like. And it sounded a lot like the 60s and 70s. Each of these albums felt like depictions of how people saw and heard the future during this era. So it’s not all tall silver skyscrapers, glass walls and digital blips and bloops. It’s art deco. It’s strings, rhode pianos and crackles from a needle on vinyl. The Art of Pleasure does a similar thing, in that it looks back to look forward. It would have been very easy for The Age of Pleasure to have tapped into wholly modern club sounds or to just be an Afrobeats or Amapiano album outright, but it doesn’t do that. It instead settles itself in the original sounds of Jamaica and even includes people of the island, such as Grace Jones and one of the first women of dancehall, Sister Nancy. You may not know the name, but you probably know one of her songs, “Bam Bam”. It has been sampled so many times over the years and has been famously used on tours by Beyoncé and in one of her Ivy Park campaigns.

As has always been the case with Janelle’s albums, The Age of Pleasure is very cross generational. There are sounds which are going to sound fun and fresh to Gen Z’ers, but also sounds which are going to resonate with Gen X and Boomers, due to the samples used. Yep. As was a huge characteristic of Beyoncé’s Renaissance, The Age of Pleasure also features a fair amount of sampling, to honour classics and create a bridge across generations. The samples add a cool wrinkle to Janelle’s sound. Janelle’s music had never featured such frequent use of samples before, but Janelle and her Wondaland posse have always put songs together which sound so much like a particular song from a particular artist, that some could mistake it for sampling them. “Make Me Feel” and the intro of “Screwed” sounding like Prince’s “Kiss”. “Ghetto Woman” sounding like a Steve Wonder song from Songs in the Key of Life. The intro to “Locked Inside” sounding like Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” and the whole thing sounding like a cut from Off the Wall. But here, there is no song that sounds distinctly like anybody else, but there is a whole lot of sampling. Some samples that folk will know and others which are a little obscure.

I grew up listening to a lot of music from the 60s, which is a big part of why my favourite songs on The ArchAndroid are “Sir Greendown” and “57821” and one of my favourites on The Electric Lady is “Look into My Eyes” and why my favourite song on Dirty Computer is “So Afraid”. But I also grew up listening to a lot of reggae and dancehall. So there’s a comfort I feel when I listen to Janelle Monae’s albums, which is probably a big part of why I ‘get’ The Age of Pleasure and feel somewhat of a kinship with its sound. I smile every time I hear Sister Nancy on “Water Slide”. And I’m taken right back to being a kid when I hear the sample of Derrick Harriott’s “The Loser” on “Only Have Eyes 42”. Much like Beyoncé, Janelle has always displayed this incredible respect for those in music who came decades before her and has openly paid their influence forward into her own sound. Even if the references go straight over heads or nobody even knows what she’s trying to do, she does it anyway; because not only does she feel a need to do it, but she knows that those that get it will get it. I do get it. And I’m also thankful for it. When I listen to The Age of Pleasure, I feel safe. It makes me smile. And I feel that this is what the album is partly about. The act of allowing yourself to just be happy and enjoy life. And once again to use Beyoncé as an example, this is also how Renaissance made me feel. It gave me permission to just be free and be happy. To release the joy from the clutches sadness and celebrate who I am. Who we all are.

A shot of Janelle Monáe in her music video for “Water Slide”. Floating in the pool in a bikini made of pearls, as the light glistens off the water.
Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure | Wondaland Productions

I’m honestly relieved that I came around on The Age of Pleasure. Because, the way I shook my head after listening to this album for the first time. I was a bit distraught. I said to myself ‘Not Janelle. Not Janelle giving me an album that I don’t like after all these years and a string of albums that I adore’. But eventually I came around. The singles not doing much for me and seeming like a departure put me in a place where I went into the album with a preconceived notion that I was not going to like it. Then I listened to the album and I didn’t. But when I listened to it a second time just for the sake of it, with an empty mind, I got something completely different. And I got it. What Janelle was doing made sense. And the part that The Age of Pleasure plays for Janelle in her journey as a person and as an artist made sense. But just because it makes sense to me and to others, doesn’t mean it’s going to make sense to you and everybody else. But much like Janelle herself, The Age of Pleasure wasn’t made for everybody. It’s a very selfish album in the way that I think all of Janelle’s albums are, which is part of what makes her so cool and so thrilling. The point of The Age of Pleasure was to provide Janelle a space to just be free in her expression of love, sex and being, and give people licence to do the same. It was never meant to serve as a primer on every facet of who Janelle is as a person. As is the case with all of Janelle’s albums, it’s an expression of how she feels at this point in her life right now. And I think all of us could do with taking a trip down a water slide with our titties out.

■ Champagne Shit
■ Black Sugar Beach 🔥
■ Phenomenal 🔥
■ The Rush
■ Water Slide
■ Know Better 🔥
■ Only Have Eyes 42 🔥
■ A Dry Red 🏆

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Album Review: Janelle Monáe – The Age of Pleasure