Deputy Editor Jackson Robb analyses Janelle Monáe's new sensual album and its celebration of love within the afro-funk genre.
The Age of Pleasure is a body of work that expertly combines sexuality and rhythm into a coherent album that celebrates growth and living in the present. There was no better artist to pioneer Grapeshot’s sex issue than Janelle Monáe, who, as a non-binary, black artist, has paved the way for other creatives within these demographics. Famous for their work in films such as Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022) and Hidden Figures (2016), Monáe has also expressed their talents through music, with The Age of Pleasure releasing as their fourth album in a decade. With 14 tracks, Monáe includes an ensemble of features, ranging from up-and-coming artists like Doechii and Amaarae to established voices like Grace Jones and Sister Nancy. Together, these artists help elevate Monáe’s afro-funk album to a height very few artists can achieve in such a saturated music space. Whether you’re a fan of jazz or a music connoisseur who appreciates a clever lyric, Monáe’s album is a great way to appreciate how far you’ve come through a sensual and artistic form. For this review, I’m going to highlight specific songs and themes on the album that stood out; amplifying lyrics, motifs and beats that make the album worthy of the Squeeze review slot, so let’s get into it!
We open with “Float”, a celebratory track that reflects on Monáe’s past and how it has shaped their perspective towards this album. Opening the song, Monáe repeats the same line “No, I’m not the same”, solidifying that this album is about growth and putting in the work to better yourself. “Float” is an introduction in more ways than one, as people unfamiliar with Monáe’s story are given a recount into the turmoil’s they’ve experienced throughout their life. Lines such as “I used to be my own enemy” show the self-destructive behaviour Monáe once embodied with the remainder of the song being an ode to how far they have come. With artists Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 providing an uplifting beat that you can’t help but enjoy, Monáe’s freestyle-like chords and lyrics such as “Had to forgive all my frenemies, they are not who they pretend to be” immediately resonates with listeners who have crossed paths with similar, disingenuous posers. The writers at Pitchfork articulate “Float” well, stating “There’s nothing at stake in this song, nothing to prove, just the sound of a top-tier talent doing a little victory dance” . It’s clear to see how Monáe’s attitudes have shaped this album, as they acknowledge their past and remain grateful in the present, with the song's chorus perfectly encapsulating this sentiment: “I’m feeling much lighter, now I, Float!”.
As we learn more about Monáe through the album, it becomes clear how intimacy played a part in the creation of The Age of Pleasure. We get songs like “The Rush” which talks about the frustrations and anticipation of developing a crush and the feelings that become attached to a specific person, all whilst crafted to a masterful beat that enhances the message behind it. With lyrics such as “I look into your eyes and I get that rush. Maybe cause tonight you gonna be my crush” merged with a low tempo R&B soundtrack, Monáe knows how to talk about the feelings of connection in both the subtle and explicit forms. We see the latter in the album's first single, “Lipstick Lover”, which contains a queer perspective of the emotions of sex and desire. Whilst the Afrofuturism that Monáe implements is felt throughout the albums entirety, it is especially featured in the pre-chorus with the line “Baby I’m obsessed, Get me undressed”. A review from The Guardian also highlights how the implementation of reggae themes on the sapphic anthem “Lipstick Lover” is an act of liberation on Monáe’s behalf, with the genre historically tainted by homophobia in the past . This idea further demonstrates the versatility of the album. One thing that stands out from this album is that Monáe doesn’t write the songs to be graphic or in your face. Instead, the feelings of pleasure are weaved into fun and achievable metaphors that listeners can appreciate and relate to. “Water Slide” is the perfect encapsulation of this idea, with lyrics like “If I could fuck me right her right now I would do that” contrasted to the chorus which sings “Surfin on that thang like it’s high tide”. It could be said that this arguably disjointed approach to songwriting distracts from the theme or message of the album, but the construction of the songs and the thought behind the lyrics makes them easy to enjoy and reflective of Monáe’s vibe when crafting their fourth project.
As the album concludes, Monáe slows down, both in the song writing and tempo. Track 13, “Only Have Eyes 42” adopts a less intense beat to what we’ve seen thus far in the album, but the album's message remains strong. This track illustrates Monáe’s experience with two lovers, using lyrics like “Double the fun, triple the time for love” as an appreciation of polyamorous relationships. This track also indirectly lets the listener know what’s going on, with the line “She bit your neck and I liked that” allowing the audience to get an insight into Monáe’s world and the desires that cultivate this album. The Age of Pleasure is a dedication to the many forms of desire, with Monáe choosing to shine a light on the traditionally stigmatised practices of polyamory and queer love. “Only Have Eyes 42” finishes with a symphony of violins before seamlessly flowing into the album's concluding track, “A Dry Red”. This track feels like the perfect song for a summer day when the sun is bright and the breeze is cool. Whilst the lyrics aren’t the most creative we’ve seen on the album, “A Dry Red” brings Monáe’s final metaphor to the listener in a peaceful conclusion to the album. The guitar in this track is almost lost in the instrumentals, but thankfully makes a resurgence before the song's abrupt finish.
Overall, Monáe brings listeners a comprehensive and lighthearted album that celebrates loving yourself and being unapologetic in your actions. Monáe has developed a well thought out body of work, filled with hits and unique interludes that make the album feel complete and coherent. The Age of Pleasure can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of gender, sexuality or preference. It’s an encouraging message to prioritise your own happiness whilst not being afraid to chase what makes you feel good. Monáe expertly develops metaphors that articulate the emotions of pleasure as they are unafraid to be direct and also make the album wonderfully creative. The lyricism is not always witty, but when it is, it is done well. The beats don’t disappoint and the Afrofuturism themes really make the album stand out from anything else we’ve seen recently. The Age of Pleasure is well worth a listen, especially if you share Monáe’s desire to let go, be free and enjoy life in the moment.
 Haile, Heven. “Janelle Monáe: The Age of Pleasure.” Pitchfork, 9 June 2023, pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/janelle-monae-the-age-of-pleasure/.
 Petridis, Alexis. “Janelle Monáe: The Age of Pleasure Review – Hot-Girl-Summer Hedonism.” The Guardian, 8 June 2023, www.theguardian.com/music/2023/jun/08/janelle-monae-the-age-of-pleasure-review-wondaland-bad-boy.