wed 29/05/2024

Albums of the Year 2023: Janelle Monáe - The Age of Pleasure | reviews, news & interviews

Albums of the Year 2023: Janelle Monáe - The Age of Pleasure

Albums of the Year 2023: Janelle Monáe - The Age of Pleasure

The pleasure principle as a weapon against all that would drag us down

'The subject matter is subtly, and not so subtly, radical'

It was a year of bleak and brutal conflict, ugly and stupid imposition of power, overt Fascism in the mainstream public sphere, decay of infrastructure and apocalyptic weather. So what better than a record of total pleasure? And Janelle Monáe’s fourth album in 13 years really does do exactly what it says on the tin, in every possible ways. Over 14 songs in just 32 minutes, it positively glows with self-confidence, satsifaction, in-the-moment joy, and deeply felt sensualism.

And by sensualism I mean complete filth. Its appeal, though, is not just titillation, not by a long shot – and it’s not just escapism either. The Kansas City-born singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, dancer, conceptualist etc etc has never done things by halves, and in this record she has focused her intention so fiercely on capturing the pleasure principle that it has created a work of real magic, that feels like it has powers to stand up against the forces that can make life so bleak.

To start with, where Monae has previously tended to the experimental and jagged, here the music flows effortlessly through decades and across continents of Afro-diasporic music. From retro reggae, through 70s Afrobeat and Brazilian jazz to the most modernist electronic South African amapiano, the sounds are joined by highest common factors. There’s a scholarship and sense of possibility to all of this which reminds us that this pursuit of pleasure has always been inseparably tied into resistance, self-realisation and innovation.

And the subject matter is subtly, and not so subtly, radical too. Monae’s sexuality is as expansive as the music – self-declared as non-binary, pansexual – and she is a 38-year-old woman taking total control of that, not having to subvert the presence of the male pornographic gaze in the way of many female stars today, but discounting it completely as she makes her own subjectivity all that matters. As she sings to lovers male, female or unspecified, the all-inclusive nature of this pleasure – no part of it erasing anyone else’s existence or choices – makes it the embodiment of the horrified conservative’s cry of “THIS IS THE FUTURE THE LIBERALS WANT!”

And that principle has flowed through plenty of other music this year, too. The omnipresence of that South African amapiano – including, increasingly in UK music – was a sterling reminder that progress still happens, newness still exists, and that there is a wide world out there now that UK/US/European cultural gatekeeping is crumbling. One of the world’s biggest stars – Andre 3000 – making essentially a psychedelic ambient jazz meditation album was a delightful twist. Hifi Sean and David McAlmont, two gay men in their 50s who’ve both had wildly different paths through the world of music converging to make a perfect, innovative, instant pop album was an inspiration. Equally deep and wonderful pop came from diverse names like A Man Called Adam, Nabihah Iqbal, Róisín Murphy and many more. And seeing all of these threads of intergenerational, cross-cultural, scholarly-but-joyous music coming together in Gilles Peterson’s We Out Here festival truly galvanised a sense of hope. And if there’s one thing we need more of right now, it’s hope.

Three More Essential Albums of 2023:

Hifi Sean & David McAlmont – Happy Ending

DJ Maphorisa & Tman Express – Chukela 

Nabihah Iqbal – DREAMER

Musical Experience of the Year:

We Out Here 2023, St Giles House Wimborne

Track of the Year:

Goat – Join the Resistance

It is the embodiment of the horrified conservative’s cry of “THIS IS THE FUTURE THE LIBERALS WANT!”

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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