Joel Biswas is still celebrating the 200th anniversary of Rhythm Nation.
From the Damita Jo era until earlier this year, Janet Jackson — pop royalty — found herself all but forgotten. A trio of expensively produced albums were met with critical indifference. A younger generation of pop and R&B artists enjoyed a decade-long party in the mansion that Janet built. It was assumed that the 2004 Superbowl performance ostensibly put the nail in the coffin of her career, as though a wardrobe malfunction qualified her records to be burned at the 50-Yard line.
Save for the die-hards and the nostalgic, Janet was ostensibly over. Commercial and critical erasure is an immutable law of pop culture, but so is America’s love of a comeback. So earlier this year, Janet dropped “No Sleep” and experienced her first online buzz shortly before her 50th birthday. She even brought back Missy Elliot (whose own more recent Superbowl appearance went far more smoothly) for the disco-house gem “Burn It Up.” After years of indifference, the conditions looked favorable for a career rebirth.
But she should’ve received a collective apology alongside the seventh Billboard #1 that she earned for her latest full length Unbreakable. So rather than bask in the feel-good glow of her redemption, on behalf of America I’ll be the first to say, I’m sorry Miss Jackson. We fucked up.
80’s kids can’t help but vividly recall Janet busting moves on club dance floors to “Escapade” and “Miss You Much.” The future of pop music might’ve been bubbling in Chicago and Detroit, but mainstream America was a Rhythm Nation. Janet was party-starter, general, and First Lady.
Powered by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, “Control” was as state-of-the-art as dance pop had ever gotten. They played the Timbaland to Janet’s Missy, taking the electro-boogie blueprint of the Minneapolis Sound and welding it into slick minimalist grooves with a punishing industrial pulse. They proved as essential to her work as Quincy Jones did for her brother. Clad in leather, studs and epaulets, Janet looked a futuristic dictator. This stratospheric success belied what ultimately made Janet alluring. Her chameleonic sensibilities found her morphing into a dancefloor guerilla, a street soldier, a R&B queen, a video vixen — but at her core, she was always an incurable romantic and muse for the greatest producers.
Her breakthrough single, “Control” offers a vivid early snapshot of the Jackson clan’s other prodigy. Just a fresh-faced 20 year-old who wanted to live in Westwood, she bounces from her parent’s house with her band in a green ’64 Impala — still recognizable from acting on Good Times and Fame. It was 1986, the year that Janet came of age. The album supplied her ticket to superstardom, perfectly mixing sunny teen optimism and around-the-way girl attitude with irresistible, polished funk. “Nasty Boys” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately” presaged “No Scrubs” and the girl power of Destiny’s Child by more than decade. By the time Rhythm Nation dropped in 1989, the world was hers.
But like her brother, Janet was prone to lengthy hiatuses. ’89 to ‘93 was a critical period to be out of the game and by the time Janet dropped, hip-hop and Mary J Blige had happened. Pop music endured seismic shifts. A more streetwise and sexed-up Janet emerged in the pitch-perfect hip hop soul of “That’s the Way Love Goes” (right down to it’s obligatory “Hihache” and “Big Payback” samples). A starring role in “Poetic Justice” combined with social commentary of “New Agenda” made her credible again — so it goes when you’re working alongside 2Pac and Public Enemy.
Elsewhere, the 80’s funk of “This Time”, “If” and “Funky Big Band” underscored how fast things were changing. “The Body that Loves” and “Any Time Any Place” were respectably grown-up quiet storm joints in the mould of Anita Baker or the Braxtons. For all this accomplished music, the overt sexuality of “Throb” commanded the headlines — even if in hindsight it drinks from the same well of NYC house that powered Madonna’s “Vogue” a few years earlier, with diminishing returns. As the sultry album cover made explicit, the leather and rivet uniform was off – Janet was ready to play.
By the time the sultry late night funk of The Velvet Rope dropped in 1997, the game had changed several times over. The radio belonged to Roc-a-Fella, Death Row, Timbaland, R Kelly, BoyzIIMen and TLC. Beneath the surface, the Soulaquarians breathed smoked out textures into soul music, and the first wave of Big Electronica was breaking via Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers.
From these two undercurrents, Janet assembled her most enduring album. The epic, sprawling Velvet Rope yielded Janet’s most successful piece of genre-hopping: from the Isley-funk of “You” and “Rope Burn,” to the lush disco of “My Need” and “Go Deep,” to “Can’t Be Stopped” and the sublime Dilla and Q-Tip collaboration, “Got Til It’s Gone” (the latter providing Janet’s most assured hip hop soul moves). The great Armand Van Helden and Tony Humphries’ remixes of “Together Again” showed that Janet’s affinity with the dancefloor was undiminished. Even the ubiquitous spoken word interludes finally found their moment.
By the 2000s, Janet arrived at a formula of lush RnB with hints of house and electro, which mixed sexuality and lush melodies. She showcased her voice in huskier and more androgynous ways, while its similarities to her brother’s were now a source of intrigue rather than a basis for unfair comparison. Listening to her consistently solid output from this era, it’s hard to fathom how her fall from grace could have been so precipitous. The craft is the work of a master, it’s just a shame that it took us fifteen years to realize it. And in spite of the defiant-sounding title, Unbreakable is nothing if not an assured collection of slick joints made by a veteran artist with nothing to prove, except for maybe that they don’t make them like this anymore.
With her critical re-appraisal in full swing, here’s an idiosyncratic collection of choice deep cuts culled mostly from overlooked albums. They offer testament to Janet’s enduring genius and impeccable production. Long live Rhythm Nation.
A bumping disco number that could’ve been a cast-off from Thriller or Off the Wall. Angela Winbush, Foster Sylvers, and Rene Moore channel Quincy hard.
“Say You Do”
It sounds like “Don’t Stop ‘til you Get Enough” with the notes in a different order and slightly more rococo string arrangements. I’m surprised it hasn’t found its way onto a Jonny D boogie compilation already because it’s dope in that rare-break-that-sounds-familiar kind of way.
A pure slice of Minneapolis funk with Janet doing her best to sound grown up and sexy — but you can just focus on those synths—especially the synth trumpet solo and canned applause of like three people in the studio. If you sample this, I want some credit.
“Don’t Stand Another Chance”
SYNTHS AND SYNTHS AND SYNTHS. And big brother MJ on backing vocals. Everybody get down.
“When I think of you”
This is the moment where Janet met her sonic architects Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam and during a long cold Minneapolis winter made history with “Control.” This album has sold over 14 million copies but this is one of the only songs on Janet’s huge breakthrough not to go to Number 1. To me, it captures the spirit of the 80’s: breathy vocals, awesome keyboard bass, drum programming, and an irresistible melody.
Everything that’s great about latter period Janet in one song: a beat that bridges disco, boogie, and house, with sultriness, soul, female empowerment, and an anthemic chorus.
Like Madonna, Janet implicitly got house music. From “Throb” to “Together Again,” Janet never strayed far from her dance floor roots. Here she gets an infusion of Dust Brothers style, big-beat soul for a slinky paean to sexual freedom. Pass the poppers.
“Can’t B Good”
Musing over the power of love and sex is a recurring theme for Janet but never with more seductive power than here. The melody alone is league’s above most early 2,000’s pop R&B fodder. Ciara, Ashanti – sit down.
Janet offers her man a red light special after finishing her tour. I half-expect Ja Rule to pop up with a verse. (Couldn’t find this one on YouTube, so please enjoy the Daedelus version.)
Jermaine Dupri was the executive producer of the album 20 Y.O. and his involvement spelled the beginning of the end of his career. By the time he got involved, he effectively scrapped production from the Neptunes, Dre, Kwame, Polow the Don, and the redoubtable Terry and Jimmy. The mind boggles. Nevertheless, Janet shows real vocal chops here and explores her honeyed lower vocal range.
A track for which the word “infectious” could have been invented. Twenty years after “Rhythm Nation” Janet takes it back to the old school on an absolute highlight from the maligned Damita Jo album. Hearing Janet go full circle with a sample of Evelyn King’s 1981 “I’m in love” is a joy in its own right while the Mark E house remix squeezes every last drop out of this monster groove.
Janet goes 21st century disco. How was this not a hit?
Janet evokes the summer of ‘96 with this buoyant love song graced with a fantastic J. Cole appearance in which two soul mates separated by life and circumstance enjoy a bittersweet rendezvous. Or is it a metaphor for our enduring relationship with Janet?