“As we enter into The Age of Pleasure,” Janelle Monáe says in her new album’s PR blurb, “Lipstick Lover is our freeassmothafucka anthem… Our oasis made with love, rooted in self-acceptance, throbbing in self-discovery, and signed with cherry red kisses from me to you.”
At least you know where you stand with a statement like this. Monáe’s new album might best be described as the Kama Sutra put to music influenced by sexually fluid musicians and songwriters such as Prince, Madonna, David Bowie and Grace Jones (who makes a fleeting appearance, whispering French sweet nothings, on Ooh La La). Monáe has also prefaced the release of The Age of Pleasure with a mini-manifesto: “If the songs can’t work at the party, they’re not going on the album.”
The songs work, no question, with the likes of Lipstick Lover, Black Sugar Beach, The Rush, Paid in Pleasure, A Dry Red and Water Slide slipping and sliding over each other like eels, songs segueing smoothly to create a listening experience that might, like pleasure itself, be brief (a nifty 32 minutes is all you get), but it is immensely fulfilling. There’s nowhere to hide in Lipstick Lover: “I like lipstick on my neck, hands around my waist so you know what’s comin’ next… Leave a sticky hickey in a place I won’t forget.” Paid in Pleasure fires a sequence of money (if not Monáe) shots in rapid succession: “Baby, if you pay me in pleasure, I’ll make you be coming forever…”
The Age of Pleasure, then, is as unapologetically forthright as it can get, convincingly packaged in musical styles that filter reggae, lover’s rock, Philly soul and nasty funk. Unlike previous high-concept works, such as The ArchAndroid (2010), The Electric Lady (2013), Dirty Computer (2018) and last year’s coauthored cyberpunk short-story collection, The Memory Librarian (which was based on Dirty Computer), Monáe’s new album isn’t inspired by the anxieties of an AI takeover or a raft of sci-fi alter egos (although Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust is referenced). Rather, the bottom line is the fundamental physical closeness of human connection, how, when all is said and done, face to face, skin to skin (be it in close proximity or appropriately social) is best.
“I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself,” Monáe sings in Phenomenal, “and we’re all fine as f**k”. You could say the same for this album. It’s an assertive piece of work that celebrates colour, sexuality and every-which-way gender identity. What else but: welcome to the Pleasuredome.