World’s Worst Records: Janelle Monae


1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear

#106: Janelle Monae – The Age Of Pleasure (2023)

TLDR: More like The Age Of Janelle, Please.

MATT KELLY absolutely loved her previous album but Janelle Monae’s latest sucks so bad that he can’t help feel let down.

When your album is 14 tracks in 31 minutes and still feels like it’s wasting time, you know you’re in trouble. When you take five years to make an album that sounds like it was made in five days, something has gone wrong. When your album makes me think someone spliced Lorde’s ‘Solar Polar’ with The Happy Mondays’ ‘Yes Please’, you done goofed.

Monae’s previous album Dirty Computer was very good, a bold statement about sexuality and racism packaged in plenty of enjoyable, well-produced pop. By contrast, The Age Of Pleasure is a statement about sex that um, no that’s it. Dirty Computer hijacked the language of shallow pop to say something profound, whereas TAOP doesn’t say anything. The confidence and pride that defined Dirty Computer tip over the line into narcissism here. I’ve never been a fan of artists in love with the mirror and TAOP is no exception. On Dirty Computer the themes of self-love felt urgent in the political context that record established but TAOP is a void of lazy indulgence. It’s not an album so much as it is a vibe, and it’s a very faceless “parties and sex” vibe that you’d find achieved better on any random Now That’s What I Call Music release, which at least would provide actual hooks and dynamics and structures and such.

The way TAOP drifts around ideas for songs and then goes “nah” and hits snooze on the alarm makes it feel like Monae prepared a disc of outtakes and demos for the special edition and then submitted it in place of the album. Musically, tracks are built out of light tropical percussion while horn licks Chicago would find unimaginative tootle away indifferently as Janelle raps about how good her farts smell, but these songs don’t warrant individual discussion. If you’re looking for a positive, ‘Float’ is probably the highlight. It’s the most developed thing here, produced well with an easygoing beat, a nice mix of horns and backing vocals fleshing out the atmosphere and one of Monae’s more charismatic vocal performances on the album.

But the negatives keep piling up. The album features Drake-level lyricism, ‘Lipstick Lover’ steals from Stevie Wonder’s ‘For Your Love’ and not content with squandering her own talent, Monae gets in the legendary Egypt 80 to do very little while a feature from art-pop trailblazer Grace Jones which would have been a dream collaboration is just a recording of Jones saying in French, “Je ne sais pas comment vous avez obtenu ce numéro, mais s’il vous plaît, arrêtez d’appeler. Je n’apparais que sur des albums contenant de vraies chansons.”

TAOP doesn’t even have the decency to sound appealingly horny in the way that something like ‘Take A Byte’ was – for all the lyrical messages of wanting and achieving physical intimacy TAOP is a frustratingly tepid, timid album, like they’re trying to have an orgy without waking up mom. Even its defenders seem to be saying, “It’s actually pretty good if you go to a beach or party or something or a context in which literally anything could be in the background and you don’t pay attention to it,” which to me is an admission of defeat.

As a David Bowie fan who survived Tonight, I understand that great artists screw up and in the long term it doesn’t take away from their legend, but right now the disappointment burns. There’s something very “ivory tower” about the album, the equivalent of Marie Antoinette declaring, “Let them have sex”. It’s as inspirational as someone worth 12 million dollars lounging around on a beach getting laid while not troubling themselves with whether those of us without such freedom are getting a return on the money spent on this album.

Like ‘Solar Power’, it unsuccessfully attempts to frame doing things half-assed as an artistic statement. Being chill and comfortable with yourself and not caring what others think are all fine things but they rarely make for compelling art, at least not on this mid-life crisis-ass, sex jams compilation curated by Starbucks, Jimmy-Buffett-for-Pitchfork-readers barbecue reggae half-hour of being trapped in an Applebees on luau night while your tipsy aunt hits on your friends. Not only do I think I’m not going to listen to this album again, I’m fairly confident you aren’t either. Soon after release it feels forgotten. Monae is free to navel-gaze as much as they want, but we’re under no obligation to find it interesting.

The distressing sight of a major talent pissing away their window of relevance.

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Matthew Kelly is the most important person in the music industry – the type of obsessive nerd without whom it would have no reason to produce box sets and nine-hour long documentaries.

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