Janelle Monáe’s ‘The Age Of Pleasure’ Channels Freedom and Euphoria As Acts Of Resistance

Over the last five years, Janelle Monáe’s brand as a creative force to be reckoned with hasn’t gone unnoticed. However, after dipping her toes into new experiences like acting and writing, she’s getting back to her musical roots. Much like the Kansas City-bred, ATL-cultivated musician herself, The Age Of Pleasure (which clocks in at just over 32 minutes) is sweet and petite. Yet, despite its length, her fourth studio-album serves as a jam-packed, Pan-African-spanning ode to finding pleasure in everyday moments.

Released June 9, The Age Of Pleasure creates a comforting space for Monáe and her beloved “Fandroids” to live out loud. Crafted in response to the pandemic and influenced by “Everyday People,” a globally-recognized cultural gathering and love letter to the Black community, the project showcases the 37-year-old’s evolution as a “free-ass motherf*cker.” Pleasure’s varied yet succinct production traverses the Black diaspora across 14 songs — Afrobeats, Ampiano, Lover’s Rock reggae, and trap-infused tunes showcase the artist’s creative license to do whatever the hell she feels like doing, in the name of artistic and individual gratification.

Though lyrics were crucial to Pleasure’s predecessor, 2018’s Grammy-nominated Dirty Computer, they don’t demand the spotlight here. Instead, the music — and the communal energy it ultimately stands for — speaks volumes. While outside ears may have felt that Dirty Computer’s content wasn’t “for them” for whatever reason, Pleasure makes it clear that anyone — regardless of gender identity or affirmation — is welcome to toast to life’s delights and concede to the rhythms. (“I want all of us (Black and Brown people, specifically) to have a soundtrack to this lifestyle,” Monáe told Angie Martinez in May.)

But this is not to say that Pleasure is devoid of queer moments, which should not come as a surprise considering the mechanisms of Monáe’s catalog and personal life. (The artist uses she/they pronouns, and identifies as non-binary.) For instance, the “Vivrant Thing”-interpolating “The Rush” featuring Amaarae and Nia Long is a call-out to the “pretty girl” who’s caught her eye. The runway-ready “Haute” nods to gender-fluidity. (“A bitch look pretty, a bitch look handsome,” Monáe says.)

The island-tinged single “Lipstick Lover” celebrates queer Black bodies, and the buzz surrounding its “controversial” music video (which showcases those bodies and much more) ultimately forced the multihyphenate to create a censored version for virgin eyes. Despite the new visual’s slight deviation from full-out freedom, the point still stands firm through Pleasure’s music. Monáe urges listeners to give in to enjoyment of self and with others, whether it’s emotionally or sexually.

This could be through Issa Rae-in-the-mirror-style affirmations (“I’m looking at a thousand versions of myself, and we’re all fine as f*ck,” she states in “Phenomenal,” which features TDE’s Doechii), or through commemorations of personal growth. The album opener “Float” finds the artist applauding her wins over an infectious trap beat created by Nate Wonder and Nana Kwabena, and horns provided by Seun Kuti and his band, Egypt 80. (Pleasure largely feels Fela Kuti-esque through grandiose instrumentation, so the sonic support from the legend’s son feels especially apropos.) And obviously, pleasure can also be found through physical self-exploration. (“If I could f*ck me right here, right now, I would do that,” Monáe admits on the aquatic, autoerotic “Water Slide.”)

But The Age Of Pleasure is best represented through songs illustrating the importance of community — the hallmark of “Everyday People” bashes. Monáe has been open about her past experiences living with a perfectionist complex. Through healing, she’s learning to enjoy the present without edits or filters, and she encourages others to do the same. (“I’m working on the balance of knowing that some things are just beyond your control and you’ve got to be in the moment and roll with the punches,” she said of her journey back in 2018.)

The dropping of this shield is most evident during The Age Of Pleasure’s trifecta of tracks: the CKay-assisted “Know Better” (which samples a hip-hop favorite: “Darkest Light” by the Lafayette Afro Rock Band), the bouncy “Paid In Pleasure,” and “Only Have Eyes 42,” a cheeky nod to polyamory that concludes with a euphoric string outro. This particular trio amplifies the notion of loosened inhibitions, forcing us to surrender to the moment and just have fun soaking up the company of others.

Given the internet discourse surrounding Monáe’s expression of her autonomy after years of donning (and shedding) her iconic tuxedo uniform, the growth of her individual freedom and self-understanding feels affirmed through The Age Of Pleasure. It can be anxiety-provoking to let your guard down, let people in, or to show up completely as yourself, but it can also be liberating to be exactly who you want to be in a world that doesn’t want you to do so.

The album captures what we all aim to experience at the end of the day. In this mid-to-post-pandemic era, it amplifies a new definition of freedom for many. The attacks on Black, Brown, and queer Americans is a daily concern. (A centuries-long one for all, but especially within the last several years.) Considering the constant diversions from the real national issues at hand, art celebrating the euphoria of authentic humanity, even with the threat of Right-winged erasure congregating in the distance, is resistance at its finest.

Throughout history’s most unsavory moments, music has always been there for minorities in particular to feel safe and seen. As someone who has never been a stranger to creating art reflective of The Times™, Janelle Monáe’s The Age Of Pleasure maintains the musician’s crusade of using her work to allow any and all “dirty computers” to remember that there is indeed a place for them in the world, and on the dancefloor.

Janelle Monáe is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.