ARTIST OF THE MONTH: JANET JACKSON | 20 Y.O (2006)
Janet Jackson released her ninth studio album, "20 Y.O.," in September 2006, when she was at a strange place in her career. Two years earlier, she was the center of a controversy that was yet another instance of the unending culture wars when conservatives would clutch their collective pearls at the seeming end of moral values. Jackson appeared at the Superbowl XXXVIII halftime show, performing with pop star Justin Timberlake. He reached out to pull at her costume during her performance, revealing her nipple for a few seconds before she quickly covered herself. Her eighth album, "Damita Jo," came out a month after the Superbowl performance. Although it debuted to excellent first-week sales, the album’s sales dropped off after selling just over a million copies due to lack of radio and television support, seemingly instigated by the vengeful Les Moonves. Two years later, Jackson returned with "20 Y.O," which celebrated the 20th anniversary of her 1986 breakthrough album, "Control." The album, her last for Virgin Records, would be another attempt to correct her career and slumping sales. The publicity for the album referenced her classic "Control" album, arguably to the detriment of "20 Y.O" as Jackson’s career was in a very different place in 2006 than in 1986. In 1986,
The Jackson, Jam, Lewis team still had undeniable chemistry, and the best parts of "20 Y.O." demonstrated why they ruled the pop charts for so long. To prove that point, they released a beguiling and appealing first single for the album, the mid-tempo “Call on Me,” a duet with rapper Nas. It’s a relatively subtle track that percolated sweetly on a simple chiming synth and an easy, soft beat. It’s a bubbly, sugary confection that should have been a big hit. Though it landed in the top 40 and topped the R&B charts (her 16th number one R&B hit), it was still a soft chart success. It’s a shame because the song was just as good as anything popular at the time. The electrifying dance track recalled why Janet Jackson should be regarded as the heir to Donna Summer‘s place as the Queen of Disco. Riding on the sampled record scratches and drums of Herbie Hancock‘s classic 1983 hit “Rockit,” the song is reminiscent of Jackson’s best dance singles. The Hancock sample and the droning synths have a fun, retro ’80s vibe that feels like an apt tribute to "Control." Meanwhile, rapper Khia’s presence gives the song a contemporary gloss. And as from her work since 1993, Jackson’s murmured, panting vocals are sexually charged.
Another song that joyfully recalls Jackson’s salad days is the colourful “Daybreak,” which will remind fans of her classic hits like “When I Think of You” or “Escapade.” Jackson’s sweet, candy-coated vocals, layered and sonically multiplied, trill melodically over thick synths that bring to mind the late ’80s, early ”90s soul-pop. “Show Me” is another affectionate look at her ’80s days, her pretty coo warbling over a crowd of bouncing synthesizers and gleaming keyboards. ‘” Enjoy” is a joyful, swinging tune that benefits immensely from Jackson’s delightful chirping. Though Jackson’s strongest suit is dance music, she shines on the luxurious ballad, “Take Care,” vintage Jackson, Jam, and Lewis babymaking pop. The song has all the trademarks of a classic Janet Jackson ballad: dreamy, hushed vocals, soft synths, muted beats, full of atmosphere. It also has a seemingly loose structure that feels like time stops when the music plays. It also has a beautiful passage in which Jackson does some of her best singing when she adds an urgent pulse to her voice.
Unfortunately, quite a few misses on "20 Y.O.," which relegates the album low on her storied discography. It isn’t that the low points are wrong – the crack team behind the record is too good to make bad music. Still, a lot of it feels like rote by-the-numbers dance-pop and contemporary R&B. “Get It Out Me” is a loud, clattering number that is missing a memorable hook or melodies. “Do It 2 Me” is a skittery midtempo number that feels like anything one would hear on radio R&B in 2006. And single “With U” does sport an excellent vocal performance by Jackson, but it’s squandered on a bland urban-pop tune that melts into a so-so blandness. Because of the heavy conditions that weigh the album down, it’s difficult to assess whether it would have been a success had it not been for these outside forces. After "20 Y.O.," Jackson would leave Virgin Records, her label for over a decade (she was at one point, the highest-paid performer in pop music), for a one-album stint at Island with the underperforming Discipline (2008). She then took a long hiatus of seven years – her lengthiest in between studio releases – to return with the warmly received "Unbreakable," which would become her seventh number one album on the Billboard album charts.
The album became emblematic of the excesses of sexism, misogyny, and racism, particularly when looking at the reach of powerful, successful white men. Moonves’ meddling in Jackson’s career – as well as his reported ruining of "Designing Women" writer Linda Bloodworthworth-Thomason’s career – was a symptom of a systemic issue of toxic masculinity, power, and privilege. Moonves was eventually toppled, disgraced, and discarded. Although, fifteen years from its release, "20 Y.O." remains misunderstood mainly due to the fraught conditions that shaped it. Although it broke no new ground, the album saw Jackson confidently hit her veteran stride doing what she does best: turning out full-bodied R&B that thrills discerning audiophiles everywhere.