“I think I done changed,” Janelle Monae ponders in the opening moments of Float, the first track of her long awaited fourth album, The Age of Pleasure. And on the evidence of this unblushingly sexed up yet artfully mixed shimmy through afrocentric dancefloor grooves – she certainly has.
An artist who arrived on the scene back in 2010 in the guise of a renegade android with high concept debut album The ArchAndriod, Monae is still rapping about how she has “come back from the future” with a message for mankind. But the contents of that message seem to have changed from addressing issues of socio-political revolution and outsider identity politics to focusing on, shall we say, more earthly pleasures.
“If I could f–k me right now, I would do that,” Monae gushes on the orgiastically onanistic Water Slide, to a slippery reggaeton rhythm. “All the girls wanna play in it / The boys wanna lay in it / But I’m gonna spend the day in it.” Throughout the track, she squeezes more double entendres from swimming strokes than you’d find on a beach load of saucy seaside postcards. Once noted for her strikingly futuristic fashion styles, Monae appears on the cover swimming naked underwater through the spread legs of men with bulging speedos. It is not exactly subtle, but it’s a lot of fruity fun.
For all the critical acclaim heaped upon her, Monae has remained something of a cult figure. At 37, the Atlanta based singer-songwriter-rapper-producer may be better known to the mainstream public for eye catching roles in movies including Moonlight, Hidden Figures and last year’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. A protégé of Prince, her three previous albums of psychedelic funk have had a big influence on contemporary American R’n’B, with an afrofuturist agenda that has corresponded with the rise of African and Latin sounds in the charts.
It has been five years since Monae gave us the brilliant but arguably overloaded Dirty Computer, and for the follow up she dials everything down but the language. There are 14 tracks on The Age of Pleasure, but only two are longer than three minutes, and the whole thing clocks in at just over half an hour of impeccably mixed non-stop grooving, each track blending into the next to maintain momentum.
Caribbean and afrobeat influences abound, marking a shift from the hard-hitting electro drive of earlier albums to gentle, summertime sounds, replete with warm horns, slinky Spanish guitars and splashes of keyboards dipping in and out in dubby style. The aptly named Float really does seem to glide on a pillow of air across the dancefloor, with the horns of Seun Kuti’s Egypt 20 offering syncopated counterpoint to nimble bass and dreamy jazz choral harmonies. Monae’s vocals dance delicately across the top lines, proclaiming a new found sense of personal freedom, expressed explicitly as sexual freedom. “Baby I’m obsessed / Get me undressed” as she trills on Lipstick Lover, with a bassline from Jamaican great Sly Dunbar.
Nothing feels overdone or excessive. An artful orchestrator of bands and guest stars, Monae employs an impressive guest list of collaborators with care, Grace Jones talking dirty in French on Ooh La La and rising Ghanaian star Amaarae sharing an explicitly sapphic duet on the orgasmic The Rush. It may not be for the faint hearted, yet for all its explicit subject matter, the tone tends to be sweetly erotic rather than pornographic. For every unprintable lyric, there’s a lot of gushing Barbara Cartland style imagery in the mould of “Feel your ocean come to my moon / Let our rain become a monsoon.” If I have a caveat, it is that it is all so single minded, it lacks the dizzying splendour of Monae’s earlier epics. But on its own down and dirty terms, The Age of Pleasure is sheer pleasure.