ARTIST OF THE MONTH: JANET JACKSON | JANET (1993)
Though her breakthrough 1986 album purportedly found her taking “control,” Janet Jackson exchanged one daddy for two—producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis was the dominating force behind both "Control" and Janet Jackson’s "Rhythm Nation" 1814—and her fifth studio album "janet" released on May 18, 1993. Jackson’s previous two albums for A&M Records, “Control” (1986) and “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” (1989), had reached No. 1 on the national charts and been certified for sales of 11 million total units. No longer a modestly successful R&B singer, she was a significant crossover talent whose commercial profile had begun to rival that of her older brother Michael. An intense bidding war for Jackson’s services ensued in 1991, with Virgin Records prevailing with a then-unprecedented and headline-making bid that the label’s founder Richard Branson later identified as $25 million. What marks "janet" as different from its predecessors is the expanded musical palette served up. Having practically invented New Jack Swing and further established the Minneapolis sound on "Control" (1986) and "Rhythm Nation," Jam & Lewis’ same formula wouldn’t necessarily work in the musical landscape of the time.
A couple of collaborations stand out immediately as compelling and exciting. Chuck D of Public Enemy lends his sonorous, pile-driving vocals to “New Agenda,” while even more intriguing is the presence of Kathleen Battle (an operatic soprano) on “This Time.” But beyond imaginative guests, Jam, Lewis and Jackson created an intimate atmosphere that allows Jackson’s lyrics and vocals to breathe life into their sensual soundscape. At first sight, the tracklisting reveals 26 songs—a veritable marathon of sensual R&B, But closer inspection finds 14 of these are minor, unnecessary interludes or segues. I think they never really add anything to an album's quality, besides some of De La Soul’s segues and those on Solange’s "A Seat At The Table." To these decrepit and old-fashioned ears, the impact of an album should come from the dynamic interplay of music and lyric, not from the snippets of studio conversation or random annoyance that these segues often become. It may be harsh, but I’m laying at least some portion of the blame at Miss Jackson’s door.
Feeling lighter and baggage-free, having relieved myself of that burden, let’s get back to that dynamic interplay of music and lyrics. Nowhere is that more evident than on the lead single and opening track (discounting one of those pesky segues!) “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Entering the Billboard chart at 14, it went on to reach number 1 and stay there for eight weeks, becoming the best performing single in the US by any member of the Jackson family. If she’d ever felt obscured by anyone’s shadow, this indeed indicated that her time in the sun was ahead of her. “That’s The Way Love Goes” is a song more significant than the sum of its parts. Its mid-tempo, James Brown and The Honey Drippers sampling groove manages to go hard and stay cool at the same time, while Janet’s delicately wanton vocal and lyrics drip with sensuality. As well as offering up the musical MO of the album, it also serves as notice that Janet is not here to fuck about. Alongside this ridiculously sexy slice of masterful R&B sit countless other infectiously winning songs. There’s the riotous New Jack Swing of “You Want This,” the self-explanatory pulse of “Throb,” and the joyous “What I’ll Do.” But nestled in amongst these lie two songs among the very best that any Jackson has to offer.
“If” is a pounding, fuzzed-up, nasty-sounding track that drips with the thrill of lust at first sight. The verses paint an intimate picture of what she imagines that she and the object of her imagination get up to. Though, the chorus banishes any thought of making the imaginary actual, as the idea of infidelity proves a Rubicon not to be crossed. Evidence that although a desire for sexual release runs through the album, the heart of the family girl remains intact. The other gem that stands proud is “This Time.” Bristling with hurt and betrayal, it stands as further testament to the chorus of “If”—sexual self-expression may be the name of the game, but not at the expense of her humanity. Gentle acoustic guitar leads the way before the eerie and unexpected sound of Kathleen Battle’s operatic vocals float as if by royal decree. And then the beat drops in a moment that is as memorable and spine-tingling as any in Jackson’s extensive and impressive back catalogue. Among the rest of the album lies the steamy, sensual sensation “Anytime, Anyplace.” Offering proof that freedom of sexual expression runs through the album, its seductively slow syncopation envelopes and whispers sweet nothings of an explicit kind.
Although this can be characterized as Jackson’s sexual awakening, it should be noted that the vast majority of the scenarios presented are sexual within the confines of a safe, consenting, exclusive adult relationship. She gives voice to the needs and desires of millions of “ordinary” women in relationships. By voicing them so successfully, she enables the same conversations in bedrooms the world over. It would seem that beneath the surface of the sexual sheen lay the same sweet-natured ingénue, albeit one ready to get what she desired. How long that sweetness would last would be revealed on her next album, "The Velvet Rope." But for now, the sweetness remained allied to sexual confidence that sent the album into the stratosphere.