Review Summary: Who knew a celebration could be so boring?”People think that we're all monolithic and it's hard for young aspiring girls, who don't necessarily want to sell sex and strictly sing crappy R&B songs. They need to understand there's a different blueprint that you can create.”
What you just read was an excerpt from Janelle Monae’s 2011 interview with the Evening Standard
, and I can’t help but wonder how she might feel about this stance today. When Monae burst onto the pop scene with her Metropolis
album series, she was a massive breath of fresh air among the (often) derivative neo-soul and R&B artists plaguing the airwaves at the time. She had everything she needed to stand out: a classy tuxedo wardrobe, a highly versatile singing style, and – most importantly – a series of fantastic sci-fi concept albums that redefined what it meant to be “eclectic” as a pop artist. The ArchAndroid
and The Electric Lady
were wonderfully ambitious pieces of progressive soul, using a dystopian lyrical backdrop to explore everything from jazz to R&B to doo-wop to gospel to psychedelic rock.
Yet, after 2013, things took quite a turn. From then on, Monae abandoned the whole Metropolis
concept for other ventures, all while gradually adopting a sexier, more outgoing public image. I think many of us assumed that 2018’s Dirty Computer
– which has absolutely NO relation to her previous albums – was just going to be a one-off experience. After all, Metropolis
still had two more chapters left! Well, friends, I think we’re gonna be waiting a long time before she returns to the image and style of old. Monae’s newest offering The Age of Pleasure
is unlike anything she’s ever done before, trading in her futuristic psych-soul stylings for a simplistic, stripped-down Afrobeat-meets-reggae sound. And all of this has been complemented by a much more sexualized visual component, perfectly illustrated by the “free the nipple” album cover.
Let me be clear here: the problem with The Age of Pleasure
has nothing to do with its heavy focus on sex, nor does it have to do with its LGBTQ+-friendly themes. No, the problem with The Age of Pleasure
is that it’s hopelessly dull
. For an album centered around sex and pleasure, there’s little excitement to be found in these limp, hollow reggae tunes, and the same goes for the half-assed lyrics. While I don’t necessarily require my music to be complex to be enjoyable, this tracklist is filled to the brim with the most blunt, in-your-face interpretations of their general themes. Take opener “Float” for instance: the song is filled with swagger and confidence, but the derivative “triplet” rap verses and mundane “float, float, float, float” chorus rob the song of any sense of fun or elation. The following track “Champagne Shit” only adds to the problem, with its lumbering beat and cliched vocal hook (“I’m on my champagne shit!”
And the fun doesn’t stop there! Lead-off single “Lipstick Lover”, which served as a bad omen for the rest of the record when it was released, is a boring slice of reggae that’s shockingly deficient of any interesting ideas. The most basic percussion, a generic bass line, unimaginative little guitar stabs in the background… there’s simply nothing here to spice things up. This brings me back to what I alluded to earlier: for a record that revolves around pleasure and fun, the music here is oddly low-key and plain. And whenever new ideas are
presented, they’re either obnoxious or otherwise misguided. “The Rush” is especially notable in this regard, as it features an extremely annoying high-pitched “baby voice” around the halfway mark – think “Off to the Races” by Lana Del Rey. Then there’s closer “A Dry Red” which tries to switch things up by introducing some acoustic guitar strums over a Latin base; unfortunately, at less than two minutes, the song isn’t given enough time to develop or grow. Instead, it just meanders around before ending the album with a whimper.
With that said, there are a few bright spots here and there. “Water Slide” is significantly more jovial and enthusiastic than most of the other tracks, offering a brief return to Monae’s soul roots while actually having some fun with the reggae elements. It ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we could reasonably get from this project. “Black Sugar Beach”, while only a minute in length, benefits from a neat little horn arrangement and a snappy pace, and one wishes it could have gone on a bit longer. Sadly, these moments are few and far between, and the majority of The Age of Pleasure
sees Monae doubling down on this new stylistic shift she’s taken. More than anything else, the record is simply boring; I didn’t think a 32-minute Janelle Monae record could be so empty of interesting ideas, but here we are. I don’t mind the fact that she went in a new direction – lots of artists do so to great effect. I do
mind the fact that the new direction was taken in such an uninspired, unengaging way.