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  • Muzik First

ARTIST OF THE MONTH: JANET JACKSON | RHYTHM NATION 1814 (1989)

In 1982, Janet Jackson released her self-titled debut album, followed quickly by "Dream Street" in 1984. Both efforts failed to create the kind of seismic impact that usually accompanied releases by her brothers, perhaps to the surprise of no one. Then in 1986, deciding to take the reins of her life, her career and its trajectory, Jackson released "Control," an album that went on to be a worldwide smash, to the surprise of everyone, but perhaps not its creator. With over 10 million copies sold and five Top 5 hits, Jackson stepped out of the long showbiz shadow cast by her brothers and claimed her place in the spotlight. As massive of a hit as "Control" was, the pressure was on Jackson to release a follow-up that would chart just as well, if not better. But as she had done with Control, she decided to make the album she wanted rather than a carbon copy of what had worked before. Working with producers and confident confidants Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis by her side, the trio bunkered down during the winter of 1989 at Flyte Tyme Studios in Minneapolis to make an album that could inspire a generation to become more socially conscious of the world they live in and the part they can play.

And so the album opens with a tolling bell and moody atmospherics while this newly formed nation’s “Pledge” is recited. Jackson lays out her intent for this new society stating, “We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of colour lines." If the pledge was the equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance, then “Rhythm Nation” was the National Anthem. Pumping out of the speakers, “Rhythm Nation” is a tour de force of metallic tribal beats, drum loops and samples featuring Sly and The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and Jackson’s hits from the "Control" album. The song deftly marches the fine line of being rousing without being preachy, capturing the ideology and purpose behind Jackson’s message all wrapped up in a hard to sit still groove.

The first single from the outing, “Miss You Much,” was the bridge between the dance orientation of "Control" and the new direction of RN1814, the record label, and maybe even fans pined for. Its instantly catchy groove and playful vocal delivery primed, this dancefloor filler bubbles with pop-funk and sweeps the listener away with its airy vocal melodies and ode to new love. The slinky bassline of “Love Will Never Do Without You” seduces with ease as Jackson sings about the desire for a fulfilling love, even one against the odds. Jackson delivers one of her finest moments on record with a shimmering arrangement beneath her. Closing the album's midpoint with “Living In A World,” Jackson frees up the second half of the project to explore a brighter side of existence, kicking off with the jubilant, springing “Alright” with its New Jack Swing groove and acid house inspired loops and squeaky bass. “Escapade,” with its pure pop sensibility, is smile-inducing. Jackson’s playful personality is perfectly captured on record and underpinned by an irresistible chorus and double clap accompaniment. Its light and airy feel is the perfect counterpoint to the heaviness of the album openers.

Just as the album opened with a trio of songs focusing on social consciousness, the album closes with another trio of songs focusing on relationships, love, and sexuality. “Lonely” leads the pack with a slow jam of densely stacked harmonies and swaying melodies. “Come Back To Me” is a pleading ballad of lament and longing, and “Someday Is Tonight” is the sexual climax of "Control’s" “Let’s Wait A While,” where Jackson delivers on the promise of being “worth the wait.” Sensual and breathy, Jackson seduces and pulls you in, setting the tone for her more sexual slow-burn songs that would close out many of her albums that would follow this. "Rhythm Nation 1814" is perhaps a perfect encapsulation of Janet Jackson. In many ways, it became the blueprint for her albums that would follow both in structure and sequencing.

Over thirty years later, Janet Jackson’s "Rhythm Nation 1814" is still a landmark album. It still resonates. And sadly, it reflects many of the ills that still plague us. It’s both a time capsule and a mirror. A movement for the heart and mind. It’s a near-flawless album. One that pulled Jackson once and for all out of the shadows of her elder siblings and made her a bonafide superstar who can still sell out arenas to this day. It’s an important milestone not only in Jackson’s career but in the musical landscape in general. And when talk centers around great albums with a social conscience, it deserves to be included.