But before we can fully listen to who she is now — a pansexual pool-party hostess vocalizing her desires from deep within a chlorinated swirl of reggae, trap and Nigerian Afrobeat — let’s remember that the old Janelle Monáe never felt same-old.
On her 2007 debut, “Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase),” she introduced herself as Cindi Mayweather, a lovesick android trying to survive a dystopian police state in the year 2719. The character instantly felt like a metaphor for anyone who has been discriminated against for their race or sexual identity, but for a hyper-ambitious musical theater kid who came out of Kansas City, Kan., as fluent in “Stankonia” as she was in “The Wizard of Oz,” the Cindi Mayweather persona also offered a sort of protective shelter. “This is a cold war,” Monáe sang on her 2010 album, “The ArchAndroid,” keeping her futuristic storyline going, the clarity of her voice belying the uncertainties of her 21st-century reality. “Do you know what you’re fighting for?”
As her work began to circulate, her multitudes began to emerge. Monáe publicly declared herself pansexual in 2018, then nonbinary in 2022, and by then, she’d already gone from a big pop star to an even bigger film star. All of Hollywood snapped to attention in 2016 when she graced Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” playing a woman tasked with listening to an abused child who initially refuses to speak. (When it comes to portraying good listeners, great musicians barely need to act.) Last year, she starred in Rian Johnson’s waggish “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” cast as a steely, centrifugal character clutching layers of secrets — a persona-juggling act that Monáe had been practicing in her music for years.
Clearly, she has learned plenty about committing to characters across her first three albums, AI-related concept records that channeled Stevie Wonder, Betty Davis and Philip K. Dick in equal measure, culminating in 2018 with “Dirty Computer,” which Monáe eventually spun off into a short film and a book. In the introduction to the latter, “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer,” she writes about a techno-dystopia in which an authoritarian regime, the New Dawn, has the power to erase the memories of androids and humans alike: “Even before the Dawn, we lived in a nation that asked us to forget in order to find wholeness, but memory of who we’ve been — of who we’ve been punished for being — was always the only map into tomorrow.”
So yeah, after trying to reconcile past and future in melody, celluloid, keystrokes and more, it makes sense that Monáe would want to stake out some fresh turf in the present. Her music seems tailor-made for this American moment, right? AI is on the rise. Anti-transgender policies are being shaped across the country, with Monáe herself condemning politicians responsible, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). But on “The Age of Pleasure,” Monáe’s politics are latent. “I also shouldn’t have to teach anybody why it’s important to protect queer Black life, trans Black life, nonbinary Black life,” she recently told Rolling Stone. “I shouldn’t have to make an album about it.”
Instead, she has made an album about a different kind of now: a summer of desire and fulfillment played out by the poolside. In that same Rolling Stone chat, Monáe explained how she made these new songs for the parties she likes to throw at Wondaland West, the recording studio/compound in Los Angeles where she works and lives — which means she just minted a massive pop album with a small audience in mind. Cool switcheroo, that. At the start of her career, Monáe’s cosmic ambitions felt wider than her abilities. Here, the abilities exceed the ambition. And there’s something unmistakably exciting about funneling that hyper-abundance of talent into the intimacy of a pool party. She’s not giving us everything she’s got, but we’re still getting about all we can handle.
On the silver screen, it’s a trick Monáe does with her eyes, which managed to communicate more than all of her lines in “Moonlight” put together. Inside these new songs, though, she does it with her voice, enacting restraint by playfully softening her timbre, signaling serenity and making her phrasing feel liquid. “I want to feel your lips on mine,” she sings on “Lipstick Lover,” smearing the melody over a loping reggae pulse as if it were melting in the July sunshine.
Like she said, she’s not the same. Or if she is, only a little bit. Like during “Know Better,” a song that locates the sweetest sweet spot between the artificial pulse of Rihanna’s “Work,” the stern Afrobeat horns of Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, and, for good measure, that saxophone riff made famous in A.D. 1992 by Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rumpshaker.” Monáe describes the sensation of wanting as “the flicker of electricity” while her longtime co-producer Nate Wonder repeatedly punctuates the track with a riveting drum fill that seems to outpace the speed of human hands. Of all the cuts on “The Age of Pleasure,” it’s the only song where Monáe’s exactitude comes close to eclipsing her humanity. Otherwise, no robots in the pool.