Janelle Monáe, 2023. Photograph by Mason Rose.
Janelle Monáe began teasing listeners with singles from their new album The Age of Pleasure months before its June 9, 2023, release at the top of Pride Month. In January they dropped a 30-second clip of “Float,” a track featuring Nigerian Afrobeats royalty Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80 (founded by Seun’s father, Fela), accompanied by an animated collage of Monáe and various comrades partying poolside. Enter: vacay FOMO. With its strong instrumentation of horns, guitar, heavy bass, and trap hi-hats, “Float” is a ballroom-level reveal of renewed queer boldness (“She stay in the Hills / He stay in Atlanta / I pay for them both!”) and the perfect piece of music to usher in a new era of pleasure-centered existence. The song oozes an air of Listen up — something’s coming. In the spring, Monáe sent another flare heralding this new age with “Lipstick Lover,” on which the genre- and gender-transcendent artist rides a fluid-sounding reggae beat while letting the object of their desire know what’s to come when they get what they want (lady-loving sex) and how they want it (sticky hickeys, among other foreplay).
Hearing these tantalizing singles back to back on repeat, I was left wondering if and how the full album could get any hotter, worried that it couldn’t quench the thirst the teasers had initiated. I needed the rest of the album to live up to the unapologetic empowerment and delicate indelicacy of the first two drops. I was more than ready to go where Janelle wanted to take me.
While scrolling on Instagram recently, I saw a meme, one of those straight-text ones: “I want to get so rich that people leave me alone.” I don’t know who wrote it, how they identified, what kind of suffering they had endured, if any. Yet the wariness in the statement was palpable to me. Forget affording housing and bills — rich people can do whatever they want in the privacy of their exclusive spaces, while the many of us who aren’t white cisgender men have to spend more to get less. According to this math, being left to one’s own devices would cost a fortune. For queer people, to be left alone means, among many things, not having their movements, their bodies, and their existence questioned. Living freely is not guaranteed, making the notion that we should enjoy and take pleasure in this living downright audacious. Our society is set up to reward those who are already wealthy with the prize of relative acceptance and, importantly, the privacy to conduct their lives the way they see fit. Many of us will never have access to this luxury except in our imaginations.
Escapism has always played a central role in my self-healing, especially before I had a regular therapist, even if it might be a questionable coping mechanism. First float slowly onto a translucent pathway to bliss — whatever that looks like — leaving your current situation and escaping to somewhere safer, where you’re not constantly facing your own extinction from the daily oppressive forces of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and countless other forms of violence. It can only be considered a utopia, because anything resembling the full freedom to exist and be well in this world is a fantasy.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when we collectively restricted our movement so that we could help stop the spread of a lethal virus, the volume of daydreaming must have increased exponentially. There is a reason poor people dream the biggest. Acutely aware that the odds of escaping poverty are stacked against them, they dream to create fodder for a radical imagining of, and the desire for, different circumstances. Even if the dream remains a wish, the hope that is inherent in dreaming is fuel for enduring constant struggle. The soundtracks to these streams of consciousness become glued to these daydreamed moments, with listeners catapulting musicians to the status of guardian angel–like companions. During that time of existential turmoil, I found myself wrapped up in my music, clinging to my playlists for dear life, navigating my days by partially blocking them out. The constant need to remain in quasi escape mode was the product of five-day workweeks, limited holidays, and many hours of exhaustion.
Monáe’s album has come at a perfect time: record heat, polluted skies, and global violations of human rights have left my people — many of us saddled with debt, underinsured, marginalized — desperate for a better world. The queers, just off of a rough U.S. Supreme Court term that partly overlapped with Pride, have needed to vacate both geographically and mentally. For those without the funds to do so, it’s time to spark up alone or with your besties if you haven’t already, put on The Age of Pleasure, and prepare to be transported. You will be soothed by the smooth sounds of the diaspora from the Caribbean to West Africa while having your kinky, sexy, beautiful self fully validated by Monáe. If you’re a Black queer or trans person, you’ll see Instagram posts professing radical affirmations of beauty, pleasure, rest, and safety come to life on funky tracks like “Haute” (think all of Monáe’s handsome, better-than-Bowie red-carpet stunners in musical form) and the dutty-wining “Water Slide” (on masturbation). Monáe is queer themself, distinguishing The Age of Pleasure from Beyoncé’s Renaissance, another recent queer-affirming project with countless queer references and queer-artist credits but not headed by a queer person.
I feel like a voyeur on a play session with Monáe and a few willing conquests: “Champagne Shit” has them throwing stacks on dimpled hips and ass and popping bubbly to celebrate their achievements and cheer on the blessed dancing of sex workers. From the multiple music videos that apply splashes of color and paradise to vivid lyrics, it’s easy to imagine strippers with top-surgery scars and leather harnesses who are packing, grinding in your face — The Age of Pleasure gives us that permission and evokes unabashedly queer imagery. “Phenomenal” will get you ready to leave the beach cottage for the club, in all your Black faggotry, fueled by Monáe asking what that “purring” pussy is serving and Black cultural references to “beautiful gowns,” poking it out, and that good “kush.” We are all “fine as fuck,” each “phenomenal, a true work of art,” and everyone bows to us, Monáe tells us, daring anybody who thinks otherwise to say it to our faces. Playing this album will quickly remind you that naysayers are destined to be ignored in the world you’re building. “The French 75” is a playful prayer, a prelude to a tequila shot: Goddess, please bless this bar hop with plenty of ass shaking, a delicious late-night menu, and, abeg, miss us with that hangover bullshit — we already got too much going on. Feel “The Rush” of an encounter with a fine-ass queer, maybe as dark-skinned and highly coveted as the silky-voiced Nia Long and falsetto-style crooner Amaarae, the gush of wetness that accompanies the electric feel of thigh against thigh. Self-worth and self-love are never ending on this album — Monáe and their listeners are awash in it, getting sprayed by it, and are encouraged to lap it up. By the time The Age of Pleasure has reached its climax in “A Dry Red,” the only thing left to do is take a shower and press repeat.
Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa is a writer based in Brooklyn.