Over the past decade, Janelle Monáe has been a force. The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and actress has been active since 2003, but they landed on the pop radar as a guest vocalist featured on fun.’s 2011 hit single ‘We Are Young’. With a concept album and an EP under their belt, the success of the song called attention to Janelle’s talent. They have since released three albums, two of which are instalments of their seven-part Metropolis series – an Afrofuturistic saga from the perspective of android Cindi Mayweather which incorporates elements of psychedelic pop, funk, soul and hip-hop. Their newest album The Age of Pleasure is their fourth release and second departure from science fiction. They build upon the soul that is consistent throughout their work with layers of reggae and Afro-fusion, introducing a new era beaming with energy and sensuality.
Opening track Float embraces this transition. Featuring Nigerian musician Seun Kuti and group Egypt 80, Janelle enters with the sounding of a dancehall-style air horn which fades into distant electronic pulses. Harmonic backing vocals are woven in with a mellow reggae beat as they call attention to their shift. “No, I’m not the same/I think I done changed.” It initially sounds like an act of convincing, but soon escalates into a statement communicated through rap verses that are carried to fruition by a radiant horn arrangement. Alongside windy keys, the brass instrumental continues to second track Champagne Shit. Janelle is living in carefree luxury, segueing directly into third track Black Sugar Beach which plays as an Afrobeat-driven celebration of their success. Phenomenal, featuring American rapper Doechii, follows on a charming bassline. “I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself/And we’re all fine as fuck.” The track embodies almost seems to fit on a ballroom runway and embodies self-confidence, a theme that remains for Haute.
Following an alluring feature from Grace Jones on Oooh La La, Janelle gets direct about their sexuality on Lipstick Lover and The Rush. Up to this point, much of the album maintains a hip-hop flow. Lipstick Lover flaunts their strength as a singer against a jumpy reggae beat. The Rush is a sultry admission of desire featuring actress Nia Long and singer Amaarrae. Sustaining the presence of notable collaborators, The French 75 features dancehall mogul Sister Nancy as part of a jazzy break on the record. These genres underpin the remaining tracks until closing song A Dry Red, on which Janelle’s dulcet vocals fall gracefully on a silky acoustic melody. “You and I in the summer breeze/We gon’ drink some tea/We gon’ smoke some wine/We gon’ light some tree/You been on my mind.” The album closes with just that – the feeling of a summer memory.
Although hopes are high for the continuation of Metropolis, The Age of Pleasure should not be overlooked as an enjoyable addition to Janelle’s discography. The 14 tracks meld together as a fun, free-spirited summer soundtrack that embraces queer sexuality on one hand while paying homage to a range of musical styles within the African diaspora on the other. Ultimately a casual listen, it boasts Janelle’s vocal dominance and creativity without clinging on to complexity.