Janelle Monáe has the type of boundless creativity where word suggestions can turn into a Grammy Award-nominated album, and producers like Sensei Bueno are the ones who help that transformation happen. The multifaceted musician was a key collaborator in the making of Monáe’s The Age of Pleasure and knew he had to understand the entertainer before he could create for her.
“Also, ‘eyes for two’ was written down on that [list]. We didn’t know what it meant at the time,” Sensei Bueno told REVOLT. “That song is cool because Janelle is a nonbinary queer, so you don’t want to fetishize being poly when you’re writing the song.”
Get into the exclusive “Studio Sessions” conversation with Sensei Bueno below.
You produced on Janelle Monáe’s Grammy Award-nominated The Age of Pleasure album. How did you first connect with her?
I snuck into the Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions and got a chance to produce on that album. But, while I was there, I got a chance to meet St. Beauty, a group Janelle was working with at the time. We continued to work on some records after the camp. That’s how I met Roman GianArthur, an artist, composer, and producer. After working with them for about a month or so, they were going to go to LA. I called my dad, saying, “I feel a little sad. We’ve been working on this project. It’s not completely done, but they said they’re going to LA.” He said, “Why don’t you just ask them to go to LA, too? Are you going to LA tomorrow?” I told him, “No.” Then he said, “So, what’s the worst you can lose?” I asked them if I could go to LA with them. They looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we’ll figure it out.”
The house we stayed at was the house Janelle was living at. I ended up randomly meeting her three days later in her pool. I didn’t even know she was at the house because at that time, she was working on the Amazon show “Homecoming,” and Coachella was coming. We all hit it off as a family like I was the little brother. I didn’t know if Janelle knew what I was capable of; I just knew she appreciated what other people said about me being a decent human being. Towards the pandemic, we did a camp where we recorded all of these songs. That was one of the first times Janelle saw me work.
What was your earliest memory of working on The Age of Pleasure?
Most of it happened in 2022. For the first couple of sessions, we were figuring out which direction we wanted to go. We wanted to make records feel active and that you could dance to them. There were a lot of jam sessions trying to find a groove and something cool… passing the mic around, trying to figure out how to make something. When we wrote “Lipstick Lover,” I knew we had something special. They had a list of concepts and ideas that we pulled from an Excel list. We were listening to a lot of Afrobeats because we threw a lot of parties at the house, and we would collaborate with Everyday People. So, we had been soaking up that sound and feel.
Janelle is such a singular creative force and her albums demonstrate that. What was her unique process for this LP?
It was me, Nate Wonder, Nana Kwabena, and Janelle. The first iteration was Janelle, Nate, and me. We would get to the studio and work for very long periods of time. That list of concepts and ideas I mentioned earlier was given to us by Janelle. Nate eventually convinced her to do it, almost like homework. Janelle wrote the different moods and things she wanted to touch on this project. So, sometimes, we just scrolled through it, and we could pick a word or phrase and start freestyling off of it to see if something came out. A lot of the process, in general, when you produce, is a lot of talking. It’s a lot of great conversations that lead to more insight.
What words and phrases from Janelle led to certain songs?
She wrote down “lipstick on my neck,” so we started playing with the lyrics “I like lipstick on my neck,” and that became “Lipstick Lover.” Also, “eyes for two” was written down on that. We didn’t know what it meant at the time. It just said, “I only have eyes for two.” It was a fun play on words. That song is cool because Janelle is a nonbinary queer, so you don’t want to fetishize being poly when you’re writing the song. So, it wasn’t just a matter of me trying to freestyle what it means to have more than one partner — it meant me actually having a conversation, and learning more about what that is and how to respect that type of thing before going into that. That became “Only Have Eyes 42.” I know “champagne s**t” was also a phrase we used, but that wasn’t a song title. It was a category for a song if we were talking our s**t on a song.
Besides the lyrics, are there any parts of The Age of Pleasure that fans can hear your influence on?
The last song on that project is called “A Dry Red.” That’s all me playing the guitar, which came from sitting in the studio with everybody. I started playing something, Nate started singing something, and then Janelle started singing something. Then, we pieced that together. “Only Have Eyes 42” originally started with me and Nana. I love the transition between those two songs. While we were writing, I remember saying, “It’d be so cool if we could just get this song to go into this song.” I had the guitar, and literally, as we were writing, I played the progressions to get over to the next key of “A Dry Red.” I voice memo’ed it, so I wouldn’t forget.
What’s the most impressive thing you saw Janelle do?
Firstly, outside of the studio, it’s her work ethic. She was filming Glass Onion when the album was 80 percent done. As an artist, she knew she had a lot of work to do when she got back home. For her to be fully and wholly engaged in the acting world, and then come back and be ready to take on this next project, which is completely different from acting, was impressive. Sometimes, I’d wake up, and she’d be going to Paris to do something. She’s constantly working. When you see someone who does that, it’s inspiring and motivating. I was next door when she recorded her verse for “Float.” I heard Nate freaking out because he recorded her. I came in, and it was the first time I heard her verse for “Float.” That was crazy because her first take was spot on. Also, there were times when she would hit notes that showed how powerful her voice is.
You also produced on “Heavy Is The Head” from the Creed III soundtrack with Baby Rose, who you worked with before. How did that come about?
I remember the task was to make a song that could also be in the movie. I’m not going to write some corny record that just describes what’s going on in the movie. So, I thought, “What’s a good example of music I’d listen to that doesn’t feel limited by being connected to a movie?” Rose told me she was going to pull up the next day. I was thinking about Labrinth’s work on “Euphoria” and was like, “What a tearjerker show that is. Obviously, there are some emotions and dynamics in there.” I texted the group chat, saying, “We’re going to make a song that will evoke as much emotion as possible.” We went into the studio, and I laid down those chords. Baby Rose and Kevin Ross were there. I played the chords and laid out the scene for them: Michael B. Jordan is getting his a** whooped. That’s why the first part of it seems darker. You get to the chorus, and it starts to feel more hopeful. So, our song had to capture the emotions of the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m in a band called Good Girl. We’re coming out this year. My band partner, who is also one of my production partners, Yuli, was there. She plays strings. Once I played it after they recorded it, I acted it out again and was like, “Yeah, it works like this. I can see him getting his a*s whooped. He starts to get up and then blah, blah.” I never saw the movie, and it ended up being a montage scene I was envisioning.
What do you have coming for the rest of 2024?
I’m still going to produce and write. Janelle’s already talking about making new stuff. We might get started next week. I’m focusing a bit more on my own band, Good Girl. It’s one of the first times I get to express whatever I want. I’ll probably do a lot of music direction work this year. I’m going to be as active as I possibly can in a couple of different fields. You can only control so much. It is the work. You just have to keep working, doing things, and being outside, ensuring you’re in the studio working with different people.