At an early gig in Shepherd’s Bush, in promotion of her debut double-disc album The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe set up an easel and, while her black-and-white-clad funk-rock band played wondrous psychedelic soul music, painted an elementary nude on a canvas. No one had a clue what she was doing as the band rocked on, daubing a lady’s waist and hips in green paint. I used to watch Monáe sick with excitement, but often parts of her act felt like a student art project, overloaded with big ideas. I had the same feeling last year when I saw Redcar (formerly Christine and the Queens, now Christine and the Queens again) on stage at the Royal Festival Hall: there was all sorts of weird crap on the stage – dress-making dolls, hazardous burning candles, theatrical paraphernalia. But it warmed my heart to see that Chris still wanted this jumble around him, not least because it was clear to the audience that his presence alone was enough – bent backwards at an impossible angle like that cartoon of the Little Prince, delivering sparkling, emotionally taut pop songs into his head-set microphone.
Some people arrive with a whole creative universe inside them and the challenge is how to feed it to the rest of us. Neither Monáe nor Chris really bother the charts, but the former, mentored by Prince and Stevie Wonder in the early days, is now a Hollywood actress and the latter still has the clout to get Madonna on his new album. Both are awkward characters: evolving in public, you always sensed they were protecting something. Monáe is a terrible interview: I once followed her around the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A trying to talk to her for an article and she kept her audio-guide on; when we finally sat down, she pretended to be an alien. Chris has had a difficult couple of years: his mother died unexpectedly, he is not as supported in his native France as you’d hope he’d be, and he recently spoke out about the backlash you get as a trans man who does not want to transition medically. Both artists have revealed more about their sexuality as society has allowed them; it’s funny, looking back, that you naturally reached for male artists for comparison when reviewing their shows: Jackson, Bowie, Prince. Chris is a rockstar really, stripped to the waist, with tiny Jagger hips.
Monáe’s Afrofuturist images and black-and-white, Malcolm X militancy were the pop music incarnation of Black Lives Matter before it had a name; her Metropolis-influenced, messianic cyborg character Cindi Mayweather has been all but nicked by Beyoncé on her current Renaissance tour. Her mysterious team, the “Wondaland Arts Society”, still represents, as she said recently, “beautiful black and brown people, in a safe space, celebrating life”. A few years ago she progressed from psychedelic soul to more conventional RnB sounds, which is when she lost me, because she was behaving more like everyone else when you knew she was different. Then she turned to film – she is probably, technically, a better actress than a singer – and acted in a string of increasingly good roles, including Moonlight, Knives Out and an upcoming thing about Josephine Baker. But where had the music gone?
The Age of Pleasure is her best record since The ArchAndroid, though it could not be more different. This is Monáe’s sex album, fresh and somehow gently revolutionary. She takes the RnB hook-up – “I just want to get you in the shower/Meet you in the back in an hour” – and sings it, woman to woman, in a way that is self-contained, utterly confident and sexily instructive. The short, crisp songs are all of a feeling: “Waterslide” makes swimming lessons erotic (“backstroke, free style, deep stroke, butterfly”) with a lifting chord sequence that gives your nerves a little thrill. It is sex without solipsism (well, apart from lines such as “If I could fuck me right here right now I would do that”) and without objectification. Although sung to someone, it somehow does not invite anyone else to look: it is a private scene, a tryst glimpsed over someone’s else’s fence on a summer’s afternoon, non-porny yet breathtakingly detailed. “I want your leg against my thigh.” There is jazz here, as there always was with Monáe: piano so subtle it seems to be drifting over from the next street. Her horns are back (“The funkiest horn section in Metropolis,” as she said in her first hit “Tightrope”), antiquely muted again, recalling the premature sophistication of the The ArchAndroid record. And what a pleasure it is to hear her shouty little boy’s voice rhyming “Breakfast at Tiffany” with “epiphany”. The Age of Pleasure is Monáe as she should be: the evolution is complete, for now.
The title of Christine’s new album, Paranoia, Angels, True Love, seems to threaten something overblown. It is 1.5 hours long – there is an overture, with a Floydian guitar flourish – and there are three acts, like a play (it was inspired by Tony Kushner’s early 2000s TV show Angels in America). I am starting to crave simplicity from these genre-bending, postmodern theatrical trailblazers: your work is done, settle down! But the theme of Chris’s recent work is the exploration and painful accommodation of the emerging self: the image of wings bursting through skin comes to mind. Fortunately for us, the pain does not stop him writing absolute bangers – cool, clean bangers with elite drum beats and fat, colourful, melancholic melodies that make your stomach go soft. That is what he does.
Don’t be put off by the theatrical format of this record: the songs are here. The second time I put it on, I found myself nodding my head and pouting. “Tears Can Be So Soft” (“I miss my mama at night/She gave me life”) is pure neo-soul, you can imagine it sung by Neneh Cherry; “Full of Life” makes a pop song out of Pachelbel’s Canon, and “Marvin Descending” (a very Kushner-esque image) showcases Chris’s oh-so-gentle way of letting a thought unfold, melodically: “I wish I was as free as he can be.” Mike Dean (who has worked with Beyoncé) produced the record and let him do the vocals in one take, at home, by himself, early in the morning – “Still in alpha state,” Chris explained, “looking for my subconscious to take the wheel.” Chris has said that Madonna agreed to read the eccentric lyrics spoken by the character “Big Eye”, his mother figure, because she was tickled by the “insanity” of the project. But nothing about this album is insane, or nearly as painful and messy as it may have felt to write.