Three days before the release of Janelle Monáe’s Age of Pleasure album, the email invitation to their listening party arrives in my inbox as I’m contemplating my face mask. Is it enough protection as the city’s AQI climbs toward 400? Would it be worse to take it off to eat my purse burrito on the walk to the A train or inside the train car? But when my phone vibrates and I read the invite, I don’t eat the burrito at all; I just spend the rest of the ride with The Standard’s address burning in my pocket while I decide whether or not to go.
How does one decide whether or not to party with Janelle Monáe, creator of anthems such as “Q.U.E.E.N.”, “Yoga”, “Tightrope”, and “Dance Apocalypticwp_postswhose newer single “Floatwp_postsis already on a loop on my every commute? I ultimately decide the way I always do: By measuring the amount of my health and livelihood I’d be gambling with. This is a classic plight of any marginalized person: The world is not built to accommodate us, but we must navigate it anyway; we’re all gamblers.
I’ve never been on The List before. I can’t imagine why anyone would want an adjunct with a week-old creative writing degree and a private instagram on The List. I have to say my name twice when it’s my turn, and when I do, I find out someone else at the party also has one of my last names. “Isn’t that funny?wp_poststhe person says with a smile before stamping a pole with legs wrapped around it onto the inside of my wrist.
The Boom Boom Room is the image of opulence. The greenery leaning in from the walls looks so real. I walk right up to the entryway arch, take an enormous bird of paradise in my hand, and tell the person standing next to it in a PLEASURE crop top that I know someone who loves this flower — can I take a picture with it? They laugh and say “of course, this is all for you!wp_postsI am handed a red-orange card titled Pleasure Guide. The rules are printed on it in warm yellow letters. They include: ‘Safety first. Fun next :), smile at a stranger, focus on the feeling, come dry leave wet, Unleash the ‘free azz mothafucka’ in you!’ A white fan with gold Age of Pleasure lettering on the side is handed to me next as I am guided to a round bar that looks like an upside-down gilded mushroom and am offered my choice of four different mezcal cocktails. I swear to myself that I’ll only have two; I must keep my promise to my sister that I’ll remember absolutely everything, but then the bartender walks away without asking for my card and I realize the drinks are free.
Above me, crystal chandeliers glow. In front of me, floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the rest of Manhattan, simultaneously glowing and fading in the post-fire-air. To my right is a fire-hydrant-red-lipped person in a pink jumpsuit with picture-perfect locs; to my left is her friend in a sheer black corset top, rolled cap, and a gold rope chain. “Are you in the industry?wp_poststhey ask me, and I laugh too hard, too loud, for too long. I am nobody; I shouldn’t be here, I want to say, but the music is too good to shout over, so we dance instead. And then another person joins, we get another round of drinks, and she takes the words out of my mouth. “I can’t believe I’m here. I just moved here this week,wp_postsshe says and we laugh in disbelief, turning back to dancing, but she grips my arm hard and points to show me that I am shoulder to shoulder with Alok Menon.
Moments later, Monáe appears in all of their glory. I hear her before I see her. I have just danced to Suavemente when a smooth “hellooooooooo” rings over the speaker in a voice I’ve never heard live but still recognize immediately — even through the haze of overwhelm. It rings exactly as true and clear as it does on their albums. Who is that. I scream before anyone else seems to have heard. Where is she. And then I see them, all 5 feet zero inches of them (excluding the jaunty black bowler hat), encircled in the light of everyones phone flash.
“Listen,wp_postsbegins her address, “we are like, a day and a half before we are officially into The Age of Pleasure! This was my F.A.M. Free Ass Mutherfuckers. F.A.M.! Shout out to all the artsy kids… Living outside of all the boundaries this world has placed on us. Redefining what it means to be young, Black, wild, and free. This album is a love letter to us… Happy mutherfuckin Pride. It feels so good to stand up here as a Black nonbinary pansexual. F.A.M., it feels so good to be able to say that and to walk in that authenticity. Without further ado, I want to start by Float-ing into the Age of Pleasure.”
Embarrassingly, I was already weeping by “listen lil mama: you like shibari? Watch while I show you the ropes,wp_postswhich is almost certainly not what they meant by “come dry and leave wet.wp_postsShe danced alongside her own dancers through the flawless transitions from song to song, then pulled my dance partner up onto the bar to dance with her, took off their white cowboy boots and sent them into the crowd, and got off the bar entirely to vibe with us on the ground, barefoot, at one point leaning in within a foot of my face and mouthing something I could not process through the rush of emotion at their proximity. It should go without saying, but trust and believe: From every angle, “a bitch look pretty — a bitch look handsome.”
Float is exactly right — the whole album feels like watching a plane take off, the marvel of that disconnect from the ground that looks like an impossible divorce from gravity but is, in reality, working well within the laws of physics. After all of the Archandroid/Electric Lady/Dirty Computer/“she’s not even a person, she’s a droid” messaging, The Age of Pleasure is a fantastically deep breath of fresh air. What if, Monáe seems to ask, I was just a human all along? What if I fully embodied all that I am right now, in front of you? What if you did the same, and we did it together?
Since before its release (or any of the release parties), the album and its accompanying cover and video have been getting some predictable backlash from listeners who find Monáe’s newfound freedom from black and white suits alarming. It has also gotten plenty of praise for being so different, as the very first lines announce. But in reality, the album carries many hallmarks of Monáe’s previous music: sexuality that colors outside the lines, seamless flow from one song (and genre) into the next, an acoustic parallel to the message of the lyrics — freeing the mind and body from social constructs that just aren’t giving. I wake with a start in the middle of the night two weeks later with “Phenomenalwp_postsplaying in my head and realize that the difference with The Age of Pleasure is that this sensuality is a fully embodied one. The see-through crop top is revealing more than just their whole chest; it is revealing them as completely corporeal. Inside a human form that grows and changes, not an extraterrestrial, mechanical, or metaphorical one. This acceptance of being nothing more or less than human is the kind of radical that heals like a balm, the kind that resonates deep, and ripples out through lines like “dance, ‘cause there ain’t nobody else in this bitch like you.”
“You want me to play it again?wp_postsMonáe calls into the mic at the end of the album’s first play through. “It’s only 32 minutes!wp_postsAnd after resounding affirmation from the audience, we dance to it all again. And even after they leave, floating goodbye kisses to us all the whole way out, my new friends and I keep the dancing going, the mezcal flowing, and the phone camera lights flashing, this time pointed at each other.
One last confession: I am writing this three weeks after it has happened, in between Pride parties. I have left one early and am late for another. I am hungover from one and still prepared to toast at the next. I am texting “I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it — I’m on deadline!!!wp_poststo three different people, one of whom is family, and I am hoping these leftovers are enough to power me though this hour while being kind to my digestive tract. I shouldn’t be this frantic to get from one place to another — it’s New York City, there will always be another party. But please understand: I, too, once thought I wasn’t of this world. That I was somehow something other, something else, despite being so painfully ordinary to myself. Until I started finding the places like this party, where all of the parts of me were okay, were celebrated, and I found myself … relaxing. Calming down. It has taken time, and it still takes reminders, even today, to trust that I do fit here, on this planet and in this body. That even though (as a Black queer woman with a penchant for work that doesn’t pay) I gamble every day to live the life that’s worth it to me, neither I nor any of the things I desire are all that difficult to allow. The freedoms I need and want are so simple. Like Monáe, all I want is a little pleasure, all I want is my love — but made to measure.