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Janelle Monáe Black Dress

U.S. actress/singer Janelle Monáe attends the Vanity Fair 95th Oscars Party at the The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California on March 12, 2023.

Photo by Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images

Janelle Monáe and Her Provocative Era Aren't That Shocking

Countless Janelle Monáe songs have foreshadowed this shift we’re witnessing. Maybe you just weren’t listening hard enough.

Janelle Monáe never asked us to define her. Last week, the polymath artist announced her fourth studio album The Age of Pleasure. But its racy promo was less than expected to casual listeners. The rollout began with a clip of Monáe performing an acoustic version of her new single “Lipstick Lover,” and in the last moments of the 45-second preview, the 37-year-old emerges from the water in a wet t-shirt. What accompanied the preview was the NSFW “Lipstick Lover” visual, and sights of Monáe being a free-the-nipple advocate. But this hasn’t been the first time she’s been a spokesperson for bodily autonomy. Since her days of portraying android alter ego Cindi Mayweather in the five-part dystopian Metropolis suites, Monáe has steadily risen from an androgynous character to becoming an icon of unabashed queerness. So, despite online chatter, Monáe’s move into skin-baring territory isn’t new — she’s been signaling the shift for years.

Once the video for “Lipstick Lover” dropped, Monáe tweeted that fans could expect her to have “titties out for the next 15 years.” But over a decade ago, Monáe’s “Fandroids” were introduced to the Wondaland Arts Society co-founder as an afrofuturist and pompadour-styled vocalist from Kansas City, regularly seen in a black-and-white bespoke tuxedo. Monáe’s aesthetic and sound were anomalous in R&B, and her early projects — Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and The ArchAndroid — subscribed to a heteronormative love story between Mayweather and Sir Anthony Greendown. As questions arose about Monáe’s masculine-leaning presentation, she slyly evaded questions about her sexuality in interviews. “The lesbian community has tried to claim me,” she told Rolling Stone in 2010. “But I only date androids. Nothing like an android — they don’t cheat on you.”

However, Monáe didn’t denounce the LGBTQ+ community, who the singer recognized upon the release of her sophomore LP, The Electric Lady, in 2013. Lines about her sexuality were subtle but apparent in songs like “Givin’ Em What They Love,” “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and “Sally Ride.” Monáe’s outfits were just as audacious; the artist continued to wear suits, but Monáe’s pants graduated from bootcut to skintight, and her signature neutral makeup received a bold upgrade. In the music video for “Dance Apocalyptic,” Monáe was at her flashiest and most sexually fluid yet, as an all-female audience swoons over her while she performs and gyrates in a white tank top.

The Electric Lady was a precursor to her third studio album, Dirty Computer, which also saw Monáe coming out as pansexual in 2018. Themes and imagery from Dirty Computer (which centered android Jane 57821) remained just as sci-fi as the previous releases of Monáe’s oeuvre, but the era marked a direction into fearlessness. The Dirty Computer visual album, billed as an “emotion picture,” featured actress Tessa Thompson as Monáe’s love interest, and segments of the film showed a more risqué side of the vocalist. The resplendent video for Prince-inspired ditty “Make Me Feel” showed portions of Monáe braless underneath a flimsy top, in bodysuits, and a multi-piece rhinestone outfit, all while she contemplated her affections for a male and female lover.

The most unforgettable of the film was “Pynk,” an ode to the vulva. Its cotton candy-hued visual showed Thompson’s face abloom Monáe’s “vagina pants.” Elsewhere in the video, Monáe dared to zoom in on her crotch, situated in false pubic hair-exposing panties that read “Sex Cells.” Monáe’s third LP and its companion film became a public discourse on Black feminism and queerness, and the inspiration for the academic book, The Color Pynk: Black Femme Art for Survival. Since Dirty Computer, Monáe’s fashion-forward appearances have been more colorful than the last. Continuing to push her visibility as a “free-ass motherfucker” in 2022, the Glass Onion actress revealed that she identifies as nonbinary.

But those who didn't witnesss Monáe's evolution and clearly haven't been paying attention to the actual music, ran to social media to express their shock of her recent toplessness. As Monáe’s history shows, she’s always been self-authoritative over her sexual liberation to averse the male gaze. “Lipstick Lover,” a single that Monáe said is “rooted in self-acceptance,” was shot à la “Pynk” but as a defiance to homophobic societal norms, especially as R&B has grown to embrace LGBTQ+ artists. She also recently clarified how her earlier aesthetic was more a tribute to her working class parents and not meant to be a critique against anyone else, saying in a 2018 interview with The Breakfast Club: “...I felt like people were using my image to denounce, defame and demean other women...some people, who have their own agendas and are respectability politicians, may have been misled into thinking I covered to be an example of what's proper...I didn't like that.”

There are so many songs by Janelle Monáe that have laid the groundwork for where she is now. Rather than hiding behind the guise of a robot, with The Age of Pleasure, Monáe’s new phase sees her entering her natural form. For now, there’s no references to Mayweather or Jane 57821 — just Monáe in the fullness of herself and welcoming listeners to be equally free (as is evident of a viral moment where she flashed attendees at a recent performance). The same artist who once asserted that “Jamaican food and sex” is the reason for her curvier shape, has soft launched a provocative era, one that needs no permission from longtime fans or detractors. Monáe’s eroticism has been here before. But this time, she’s letting us observe her pleasure in all its glory.