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ARTIST OF THE MONTH: JANET JACKSON | THE VELVET ROPE (1997)

Released on October 7, 1997, Janet Jackson’s sixth studio album, "The Velvet Rope," caught a lot of people off guard with its frank exploration of sexuality, the complexity of human relationships, and the worrisome burden of emotional trauma. Though Janet Jackson’s solo recording career began in 1982 at A&M Records, where the label was initially keen to portray her as a cute, innocuous, girl-next-door figure, she grew frustrated at being a producer’s puppet and decided to reinvent herself. Adding edge and attitude, Jackson hooked up with ex-Time members, songwriters and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in 1986 and began making music that reflected her life. What resulted was the platinum album "Control," whose autobiographical theme about taking the initiative and being true to yourself instantly transformed Janet into a pop star whose success began to rival that of her more famous elder sibling, Michael. By the time "The Velvet Rope" came along in 1997, the girl from Gary, Indiana, had morphed into a confident young woman whose two follow-up albums to "Control" – 1989’s "Rhythm Nation 1814" and 1993’s "Janet," both co-produced by the singer with the dependable Jam & Lewis – made her the most famous woman in the world at that point.

Conceived over two years, "The Velvet Rope’s" creation was undertaken by Jackson and her longstanding musical architects, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jackson’s second husband, Rene Elizondo Jr., co-wrote alongside his wife on the project. Their marriage wouldn’t become public until their separation in 2000, but Elizondo Jr. inspired Jackson. After years of avoiding her far-ranging internal struggles―depression, an eating disorder, body dysmorphia―Jackson sought to expunge these demons lyrically on "The Velvet Rope." “You” is the most scathing of Jackson’s self-examinations. On the opposite side, “Special” nods to her self-care. With her intrinsic ruminations, she also takes on the global human condition. Scattered throughout the LP are songs touching on LGBTQ issues (“Free Xone”), domestic abuse (“What About”), mortality (“Together Again”) and other socially conscious subjects. Unlike the topical tracks of Janet Jackson’s "Rhythm Nation 1814" (1989) or "Janet." "The Velvet Rope’s" social justice arc doesn’t feel strong-armed, only pragmatic and relaxed.

More intriguing was Jackson’s sexuality, a significant component of the record’s narrative. Lyrically, she traverses the shadowy side of desire on “My Need” and “I Get Lonely.” From this album onward, eroticism became the thematic catalyst Jackson worked on until the mostly conservative-leaning "Unbreakable" (2015). Musically, the lighter soul of Janet. that unnecessarily tended toward pop accessibility is exchanged for a bolder, blacker sonic on "The Velvet Rope," which favours deeper mining of hip-hop (“Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” “Go Deep”), house (“Together Again”) and a miscellany of other modish urban designs, some sampled, some original.

Notably, there was a new ingredient at play here: neo-soul. This R&B sub-genre was to bring artistic relief to a black music scene soon to become rife with super producers and manufactured talent as the 1980s closed. Starting in 1991 with Omar, the sub-genre grew with efforts from Caron Wheeler, Meshell Ndegeocello, D’Angelo and Maxwell. This movement influenced the imaginations of black artists far and wide. Jackson is no exception, as neo-soul carried the Blaxploitation/freestyle merger of “Free Xone” and the bare-faced piano preciousness of “Every Time.” Neo-soul also touched Jackson’s visual aesthetic for "The Velvet Rope." Two of its partnering music videos directed by Mark Romanek (“Got ‘Til It’s Gone”) and Seb Janiak (“Together Again”) were celluloid encomiums to Afrocentrism.

Quite the musical meal when served up on October 7, 1997, "The Velvet Rope" asked for patience while unmasking its treasures. The set’s singles―“Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (featuring Q-Tip), “Together Again,” “I Get Lonely,” “Go Deep,” “You,” and “Every Time”―were fantastic lures for what awaited listeners on "The Velvet Rope." Jackson’s sixth LP marked a new pinnacle for her, both critically and creatively. Since then, only 2004's "Damita Jo" has entered "The Velvet Rope’s" orbit as her secondary masterpiece. By granting temporary access to the “spiritual garden” of Janet Jackson on "The Velvet Rope," audiences can experience and celebrate the complexities of this woman.