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Janelle Monáe's 'The Age of Pleasure' album is exactly that


This is FRESH AIR. Janelle Monae has been releasing albums that mix R&B, pop and rap since 2007. And in recent years, she's established herself as an actor in films like "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures" and the hugely popular Netflix film "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery." Well, now she's back with her first new album since 2018. And rock critic Ken Tucker says its title, "The Age Of Pleasure," is the crucial key to the themes and sound of this new collection.


JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) I look into your eyes, and I get that rush maybe 'cause tonight you're gonna be my crush. I look around, and I get that rush maybe 'cause tonight you're gonna be my - ah. Skin to skin...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: From the moment Janelle Monae began her new album by rapping, I'm feeling much lighter, I float, I was drawn in by this completely disarming collection called "The Age Of Pleasure." No matter what mood you're in, it dissolves any resistance you may have about giving in to its joy, its seductiveness, its glowing positivity.


MONAE: (Singing) I want my love made to measure, measure. I want to feel how you feel around me. I don't need money or treasure, treasure. Spend your quality time on me. Spend it all on me, all on me, all on me, all on me, all on me. Spend it all on me, all on me, all on me, all on me. Baby, if you pay me in pleasure, I'ma keep it coming forever. Baby, if you pay me in pleasure, I'ma keep it coming, coming, come, come, coming. Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure. Yeah, baby, pay me in pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.

TUCKER: Monae's previous album, the grandly ambitious "Dirty Computer," came out in 2018, the same year as the first "Black Panther" movie and filled with a similar kind of Afrofuturism. Monae's version crossed the science fiction of Octavia Butler with the pop eclecticism of Stevie Wonder. In contrast to this, "The Age Of Pleasure" is intentionally smaller-scaled, more intimate, in some ways more low-key and lo-fi. Listen to the use of an acoustic piano on this song called "Only Have Eyes 42." It's as though Thelonious Monk walked in to plink out a couple of chords to provide the song with its hook.


MONAE: (Singing) I like to love with my eyes closed. I try not to lead with my ego. Everything happened in slo-mo, but we all smiled and said, it's all right. 'Cause you're the one. You're the one. Double the fun, triple the time for love. You're the one. You're the one. You suck the words from my tongue. That's when I knew I only, I only, I only have eyes for two. I only have eyes for two. I only, I only, I only have eyes for two.

TUCKER: The undulating rhythm of that song is typical of the range of sounds and styles Monae uses with such serene confidence. She taps into genres native to Africa and the Caribbean, as well as American R&B. Listen to the way she deploys a punchy Afrobeat horn section to jumpstart the song "Know Better."


MONAE: (Singing) You met your match, and they know better. I know you try hard, but they know better. Nobody love you like me, and you know better. Nobody do it like me, and you know better. You try the fast wine, but the slow better. I know you fast wine, but the slow better. Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na.

TUCKER: As the title "The Age Of Pleasure" suggests, the songs here describe the life of a sybarite engaged in the pursuit of sensual happiness. That sounds simple, but it's not. Monae knows that as a nonbinary person of color, the seeking of pleasure is always complicated or even impeded by cultural and political history. Thus, this album serves as a kind of affirmative aggression, an insistence that the artist is going to live and make her art exactly as she pleases. You can come along, but don't get in her way.


MONAE: (Singing) Lipstick lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover. My lipstick lover, lover, lover. I like lipstick on my neck. It let me know I'm your No. 1 select. I like lipstick on my neck. Hands around my waist so you know what's coming next. I want to feel your lips on mine. I just wanna feel...

TUCKER: At one point, Janelle Monae name-checks David Bowie. And I suspect she may be thinking of his "Let's Dance" period, that moment in the 1980s when he teamed up with producer Nile Rodgers to say, in effect, the world is going crazy, so let's dance. Monae is refashioning that sentiment to fit our current moment. She's made a party record that takes pleasure seriously.

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker reviewed Janelle Monae's new album, "The Age Of Pleasure." On tomorrow's FRESH AIR, revisiting tough questions about the dawn of the nuclear age. Writer Evan Thomas examines the decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities to end World War II, exploring the thoughts and motivations of U.S. military commanders and Japanese leaders determined to fight to the bitter end. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "JUST YOU, JUST ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.