When the first track from Janelle Monáe’s new album begins with “No, I'm not the same, no, I'm not the same”, you know you’re in for something different from the genre-bending artist known for their futuristic sound and sci-fi narratives. Unlike her previous concept albums, The ArchAndroid and Dirty Computer, The Age of Pleasure is a departure from protests against totalitarianism and societal injustice. It’s now finally about freedom. The album is a blend of carefree summer vibes, pool parties, seductive energies and a siren call for all the queer folks out there to revel in the joy of being alive.
The singer-songwriter, who is non-binary and pansexual, has transcended and challenged binaries and boundaries in their work for more than a decade. And they continue to do so in their new music. When Monáe released the video for the single Lipstick Lover last month, it was as if Pride Month had come early. Its queer themes and bare bodies of all shapes and sizes, caresses of the derrière, and Monáe licking a heeled foot had everyone perspiring.
Despite the naughtiness, it’s all calm and cool. No rush here; it’s neither loud nor whisper-like. Take Lipstick Lover, where Monáe implores her lover to “leave a sticky hickey in a place I won't forget” or unapologetically asks in Phenomenal: “Give me face if you wanna/Give me head if you wanna/Light smoke, marijuana/You could vogue down, poke it out if you wanna…”
In Float, she just wants to dance and float while ignoring and challenging the media's obsession with her sexuality and gender identity. "They said I was bi, yeah, baby, I'm by a whole 'nother coast/She stay in the Hills, he stay in Atlanta, I paid for them both" -- a nod to her polyamorous relationships. She does the same in Only Have Eyes 42, belting out: “Cause you're the one, you're the one/Double the fun, triple the time for love”. From hip dimples in Champagne Shit to deep-stroking and going freestyle in the masturbatory Water Slide, each song has its delicious innuendos.
It may seem hedonistic, but this hedonism is unto itself political, just like its sexual energies, especially when we are witnessing a rise in anti-queer propaganda, targeting of trans people and the dilution of LGBTQ+ rights worldwide. By being true to themself in their skin and sending a message that they are here to stay, Monáe provides an example of queer freedoms no unjust law or policy can take away. So, despite the overall atmosphere or perhaps as a marker of it, politics remain at its core.
Afrobeat and reggae along with trumpets and flutes infuse the album with rhythms that celebrate the fluidity of all forms. To create that pan-African and Caribbean feel, Monáe collaborated with artists like Seun Kuti and Egypt 80. I loved The Rush, one of the most melodic and enchanting tracks, where Monáe’s vocals combine with that of actor Nia Long and Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter Amaarae to create a harmonious synthesis. On other tracks, you have Jamaican Dancehall DJ Sister Nancy celebrating her career, and model and singer Grace Jones singing a seductive French verse. These interludes become more effective because of the seamless transitions from one track to another, with synergic repetitions of lyrics or musical notes that allow for a cohesive listening experience.
The album’s 14 tracks account for a little more than 30 minutes of runtime. Yet, as I listened to the album for the first time on an evening walk, I thought an hour had elapsed. The chorus sticks to you like toffee caramel, and you’ll want to keep chewing for a long time.
For Pride Month, party anthems tend to take centre stage in pink capitalist market campaigns and branded events. Everyone is dancing to the same tune to appropriate or confine queerness within sanitised and respectable forums. But what Monáe does in her new album is host an intimate queer gathering, which does not require flash. It's a laidback experience, shaking your hips with your friends and lovers beneath the sun and diving into pools of pleasure.
Anmol is an independent journalist who writes on gender, health, social justice, and culture from an intersectional lens. They are on Twitter @ha_anmol.