Janelle Monáe Ushered Toronto into Her Age of Pleasure

Massey Hall, September 21

With Flyana Boss

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Calum SlingerlandPublished Sep 22, 2023

"The Age of Pleasure was created to be our safe oasis," Janelle Monáe proclaimed to her rapt audience from the stage of Massey Hall, sharing how the sound and spirit of her fourth album is "not a response to hate, it is a response to love." She continued, "If you are more privileged in a situation, you help. It's about being of service to each other and finding the pleasure in being a great human. Being here with you in Toronto is just a moment of hanging together, and allowing us all to make these memories with each other, because memories are all we have. They make up the quality of our lives."
On the 21st night of September, Monáe and her band gave a performance that will undoubtedly prompt a "Do you remember?" in the future from all in attendance. The artist's visuals at one point displayed resort-style signage characterizing pleasure as an "abundant resource," and on the first of two evenings in Toronto, it was in no short supply; found in hitting every move of choreography, nailing one's instrumental solo, leading the audience in song and dance and, for those of us bearing witness, delighting in seeing a singular polymath continue pushing her musical, theatrical virtuosity to gratifying new heights.

Helping Monáe ring in The Age of Pleasure were L.A.-based duo Flyana Boss, whose humorous writing and undeniable BFF synergy proved immensely magnetic from their sliver of stagefront, performing up against a white curtain hiding the headliner's set pieces. Their own headline dates will come, but for now, Bobbi LaNea and Folayan could absolutely lead a buddy comedy, and their Toronto debut was peppered with moments as if from a movie.
Early on, the duo played an unreleased song to honour the request of a Toronto audience member who saw them in Columbus, OH — who they then picked out of the crowd high up in the gallery seats. Segueing into "Trashboi," they canvassed the front row for unfortunate dating stories, leading the Massey Hall crowd in roundly booing the then-prospective partner of a woman who recalled how he took issue with her getting her nose pierced. Acknowledging how they've faced detractors since "You Wish" went "big, big viral" on TikTok this year, LaNea shared, "They've been calling us 'industry plants.' We don't know what is, or where that garden grows. But around here, we water ourselves!"
As the curtain was pulled back, Monáe's set was revealed to feature amphitheatre-styled steps on which she, her six-piece band and four dancers would perch, flanked by large wooden speaker cabinets clearly designed with reggae sound systems in mind. Beautiful blooms burst from the joints in the wood and mock concrete, their placement made all the more poetic as the screen displayed the message, "One day we all woke up and realized that we are even more than what the world told us we are."

One got the sense Monáe's flair for the dramatic would factor heavily into the performance upon an overture ushering in her arrival onstage to open with "Float," donning a flower dress with matching crown and boots in delivering her confident verses. Costume changes for Monáe and her dancers were signalled throughout the evening with each setlist "chapter" as displayed onscreen, as they became raspberry-bereted revolutionaries for "Now or Never," put on giant straw hats and beachwear for "(T)High Vibrations," and rose bodysuits (and the fabled "Pynk" pants) for "Paradise Found." On top of bedazzled and striped mic stands, the props department also worked to ferry out glass flutes for "Champagne Shit," as Monáe led a toast to "the life we lead, the dreams we chase," in affirming, "We're not thinking about the past, or the future. We're staying present tonight."
An immensely animated performer, Monáe's voice was up to the task on the second night of back-to-back performances, enthralling her audience whether singing or rapping. Highlights included gliding through key changes of "Only Have Eyes 42," harmonious holds in the chorus of "Water Slide," and an expectedly militant delivery of "Django Jane" with no backing track support in sight. Elsewhere, she took great enjoyment in leading her crowd through moments of call and response in "Phenomenal" and "Electric Lady," urging them to match her energy. That opportunity came at the set's apex when Monáe invited audience members onstage to bust a move to "Paid in Pleasure" — a bold move considering how unpredictable crowd behaviour can seem these days. Save for someone wandering up the steps to chat with the drummer, and others wanting to savour their time on the stage a little longer than stagehands would have liked, the dance was led without incident.

Monáe's talented band ensured there was nary a lull between songs as costumes were changed, transforming recognizable motifs of  "Dance or Die" and "Float" into instrumental interludes topped off with solos from trumpet and trombone players. Naturally, there were moments of pleasure where her players were encouraged to really let it rip: a groovy rhythm section jam on "Champagne Shit" as Monáe commanded the crowd to "shake it up," a series of chakra-unblocking drum fills to open "Yoga," an emotive guitar solo to wind up "I Love That," and some impressive hits to end the encore performance of "Tightrope," as the ensemble timed crescendos to Monáe swaying forward and back in place.
Between Flyana Boss leading a breathing exercise to "release on your haters, release on your landlord," and Monáe calling the evening "a blessing to celebrate love in all forms" with "fam, not fans," the star hoped that the abundance of pleasure felt on this night would "seep into your spirit" in order to "spread it to everyone you encounter." Toward the end of the set, she shared, "I feel like all of you, like myself, have been on a journey of love yourselves," before calling on the room to embrace themselves and say, "I love you. I'm proud of how far you've come."

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