Janelle Monáe: The Age of Pleasure overview | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

Janelle Monáe: The Age of Pleasure overview | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

For over a decade, Janelle Monáe has carved a distinct segment for herself as a purveyor of R&B so excessive idea that even her album covers got here with subtitles. (Purchasers of 2013’s The Electrical Girl may take their decide from the usual version, that includes a canopy titled Regarding Cindi and Her Sisters and the Cranium of Evening Thrashings, or a deluxe model referred to as Regarding Cindi and the Glow of the Drogon’s Eyes.) Equal elements Afrofuturism and the sexually ambiguous personae of 70s Bowie, Monáe’s albums so far posited her as a part-human, part-cyborg determine in a dystopian future. And also you couldn’t fault Monáe’s sense of dedication to her roles, which prolonged to apparently giving interviews in character. However the information offered nicely relatively than spectacularly, spawning hits that slow-burned to gold standing with out truly making the Prime 40.

On her fourth album, nevertheless, the whole lot has modified. The excessive ideas and Afrofuturism seem to have gone out of the window. Relatively than a stylised illustration of a closely coiffed and costumed Monáe full with a wordy subtitle, the quilt of The Age of Pleasure includes a blurry snap of the singer topless and underwater, swimming by means of a succession of individuals’s legs. It clocks in at a trim 31 minutes, lower than half the size of both The Electrical Girl or The ArchAndroid, and its songs, interludes and fleeting visitor appearances – Grace Jones talking French; a short burst of toasting from venerable Jamaican DJ Sister Nancy – segue into one another. And its lyrical focus shifts dramatically from future dystopias to partying and having it off. There are songs named after champagne cocktails, and recordings of Monáe and mates toasting one another as they embark on a night of bar-hopping. It takes 90 seconds for her to say Japanese rope bondage and that’s the tone just about set: selfmade porn, threesomes, calls for to “really feel just a little tongue”, a music apparently about wanking that opens with the attention-grabbing line: “If I may fuck me proper right here, proper now, I might.”

All that is set to rhythms rooted in reggae and dancehall, overlaid with bursts of Afrobeat horns – Fela Kuti’s son Seun and his band Egypt 80 are additionally among the many company – and atmospheres that recall the laid-back 70s soul of Kool & the Gang’s Summer season Insanity, or Lowrell’s Mellow Mellow Proper On.

It doesn’t all the time work. There’s one thing good and subversive about Monáe utilizing reggae to hymn queer relationships on Lipstick Lover – it’s, in any case, a style traditionally tainted by appalling homophobia – however the observe’s perky, poppy lope steers perilously near Ace of Base territory. When it does work, nevertheless, it’s unbelievable. Champagne Shit gives dubby vocal results and a sly rhythmic shift into mid-tempo home; Phenomenal comes infused with a shot of South African amapiano. The album’s spotlight is Solely Have Eyes 42 which conjures up an enveloping dreamy atmosphere and borrows the refrain from the Flamingos’ equally titled doo-wop basic.

Janelle Monáe: The Age of Pleasure album artwork.

Latest profiles of Monáe have made clear that the partying and having it off include a side-order of earnest stuff about self-acceptance and self-discovery, “actively specializing in being current”, reorienting your life round pleasure, and so forth. Should you query whether or not pop music essentially wants earnest justification for being about partying and having it off – provided that these items have just about been pop music’s important focus for the final 75 years – nicely, that’s 2023 for you. Both means, it’s an earnestness that typically seeps on to The Age of Pleasure itself. The direct lyrical references to non-public growth are over and performed with early on, however there are moments when Monáe’s vocals really feel oddly stiff, as if she’s enjoying one other position, or attempting just a little too laborious. The instructions she points throughout Phenomenal sound much less stentorian than picket; there’s one thing dead-eyed in regards to the singing on Know Higher, or about Paid in Pleasure’s chant of “pleasure, pleasure, pleasure”. It’s an album about hedonistic abandon that sometimes makes hedonistic abandon sound like one thing difficult a therapist has tasked you to do earlier than subsequent week’s session.

Then once more, the album’s brevity means these moments move rapidly, to be supplanted by moments when Monáe sounds as mild and heat because the music behind her: singing in an ethereal excessive register on The Rush; lushly multi-tracked on Water Slide; rapping – one thing she’s all the time been impressively expert at – on Haute (“They are saying I look higher than David Bowie in a moonage dream”) or Champagne Shit. And at moments like that, The Age of Pleasure’s flaws really feel forgivable. If it’s not all the time the unfettered pleasure it purports to be, it’s a dramatic pivot unlikely to alienate anybody drawn to the previous high-concept Janelle Monáe. Given pop’s present risk-averse local weather, that’s an achievement in itself.

This week Alexis listened to

L’Rain – New Yr’s Unresolution
Someplace between summary dream pop and R&B – like a 2023 tackle shoegazing legends AR Kane in house-infused mode, circa 1989’s i – New Yr’s Unresolution floats dreamily, anchored by a heavy bass and chattering synth.

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