Those paying attention to Janelle Monáe’s career trajectory shouldn’t have been surprised when she announced the direction of her new album The Age of Pleasure. Yes, Monáe rarely showed skin at the beginning of her career, but she began to explore her sexuality once Dirty Computer came around. As she began to accept herself through a more traditionally feminine lens, she maintained her interest in exploring different forms of freedom across several aesthetic backdrops.
Both The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady followed a time-traveling android sent to an era where a secret society actively suppressed freedom and love. More social commentary than sexual liberation, Monáe carved out a role for herself as an artist that could get you to hit the dancefloor all while thinking about the subtext hidden in each track. She followed the blueprint of those two albums to a faint degree on Dirty Computer where she dedicated a song to coochie on “Pynk” and fantasized about getting “Screwed” in various locations with Zoë Kravitz. This shift in theme marked that Monáe was no longer just a hyper-conceptual artist that needed to constantly put out music worth pondering over for days, she was a woman with wants and needs too.
With that album setting the foundation for a larger exploration of Monáe’s sexual liberation, The Age of Pleasure sees her fully embracing it. In just 30 minutes, Monáe spends her time drinking too much champagne, musing over herself, and setting her sights on a potential long-term partner. Much of the subject matter ditches the depth that permeated her past efforts in exchange for lighter, more sensual material aimed at self-acceptance and personal freedom.
Much like her previous albums, Monáe understands her level of self-awareness. She welcomes her change in personality and image at the beginning of the project’s intro “Float” where she acknowledges the changes she’s gone through. Its raucous horns and cocky lyrics signal the beginning of a conceited party that continues on “Champagne Shit.” Though lacking in substance, the songs avoid falling into generic or boring territory thanks to their colorful production and Monáe’s lightweight performances.
The ensuing tracks do little to sway the album’s narrative away from Monáe’s vanity, but the confidence with which she tackles the project leaves little doubt as to whether she could poignantly sell her sexuality. “Phenomenal” begins with the singer declaring her love for 1000 different versions of herself that she deems “fine as fuck,” while “Haute” uses its brief runtime for Monáe to remind herself how beautiful she is. Further in the album, on “Water Slide,” she refuses to pass up the hypothetical opportunity to have sex with herself if she could. Shallow as all these tracks may be, Monáe’s eccentric personality allows her to express a lewd version of herself she never quite fully dove into in the past.
Her love for debauchery never relents, especially on the standout “Lipstick Lover.” The sun-kissed, reggae-infused single details all the different ways Monáe loves to receive affection. Between rough play, sleazy flirting, and lobbying for a homemade porno, Monáe knows what she wants from her lover, even if it’s only temporary.
Built for the summer, the album plays out just like the season. Flowing from the celebratory opening tracks to the more mellow middle portion, The Age of Pleasure decelerates in the last few moments. “Know Better” incorporates Afrobeats-inspired drums with a hook that implores her dance partner to slow down and enjoy the finer things. Ckay fills the role of Monáe’s mystery target well, but, much like the character he’s portraying, he’s clearly playing second fiddle.
The concluding tracks feel like the tail end of August to the album’s summer season. Despite the volume of the party lowering, Monáe turns the heat up for a final sweet release on the jazzy “Only Have Eyes 42” showing that, even though she can’t resist everyone’s attention, she still has it in her to settle down with her soulmate. Closer “A Dry Red” feels as though Monáe has had too many glasses of wine and is ready to call it a day with the lover she opened herself up for on the previous track. It marks an innocuous end to the album that neatly encapsulates a day in the life of a woman who keeps discovering more about herself each day.
Stuffed with a handful of sub-two-minute tracks and a few interludes, The Age of Pleasure sounds more like a short week of longing and sexual liberation, the epilogue to a coming of age story.
It never thoroughly examines the state of sexual freedom in women in a way that an older version of herself might have, but it rarely needs to. If nothing else, the album serves as a reminder that even the world’s deepest thinkers still have a wild side.