According to a school of Ancient Greek philosophy, living a good life involves pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. It’s an idea that sounds simultaneously obvious and impossible to achieve. The leaders in the hedonism movement acknowledged that this isn’t how people can always act, because the peskiness of reality often gets in the way.
While exploring the ideas of indulgence and delight through a vastly different lens, the artist, actor, and all around distinct talent that is Janelle Monáe digs into this very idea with their new record, The Age of Pleasure, available this Friday, June 9th. The album’s first two singles, “Float” (feat. Seun Kuti and Egypt 80) and “Lipstick Lover,” set the tone for this new era for the performer, one that feels more organic and physical than previous efforts like 2018’s Dirty Computer.
Instead, The Age of Pleasure is immersed in the elements. Monáe confidently takes us from cradling waters to the comfort of the earth to the stickiness of direct sunshine in the summer and so many places beyond. It’s a remarkably cohesive record, its 14 tracks blending in so seamlessly one another that it’s often hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. While most of the songs are slight — only two tracks here exceed three minutes in length — to listen out of order feels like missing the point. The Age of Pleasure is designed to be played in full, and while the fantastic pre-release singles accurately laid the groundwork for everything waiting here, to jump around would be a disservice to Monáe and to yourself.
“I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself, and they’re all fine as fuck,” Monáe sings on the album’s stellar fourth track, titled “Phenomenal.” They’re a notable figure within the landscape of the LGBTQ+ community and someone who identifies as nonbinary — more specifically, in an interview with LA Times, they explained: “My pronouns are free-ass motherfucker and they/them, her/she.” Their overall confidence has never felt more prominently on display than it does in this album — “A bitch look pretty, a bitch look handsome,” they express on “Haute.” Just about any time the subject of a song is gendered, Monáe is singing to a woman — “And I’m throwing them tips/ And she’s throwing them hips,” they sing on “Champagne Shit.”
There’s very little vulnerability to The Age of Pleasure, and that’s not meant to be a criticism; rather, there’s a thrill that comes with being immersed in this kind of conviction for this long. Constructed around Afrofuturism, Afrobeats, reggae, and other songs from the African musical diaspora, the record is remarkably inviting. It’s a joyful listen, even more so considering the fact that it’s being released during Pride Month.
“Phenomenal” cascades into “Haute,” which wouldn’t feel out of place on Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE. Here, she sings, “Ain’t seen me like this in a while/ I’m young and I’m Black and I’m wild,” while horns herald her arrival. It’s moments like this where the album briefly feels untethered to earth and Monáe takes us on the more cosmic journeys for which she might be known; it’s no accident that she’s been compared to the likes of Prince and David Bowie in the past. She’s experimental, she’s fun, and she’s endlessly interesting — but with The Age of Pleasure, those cosmic moments don’t last quite as long. Perhaps the most spacey part of the record occurs with “Only Have Eyes 42,” where laser sound effects and a dreamy beat achieve the liftoff she very much seems to be craving — plus, her free-wheeling vocals sound fantastic.