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Bounce, Skate & Rock: An Overview of Janet Jackson

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Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson is back.

No Sleeep,” the first single from her forthcoming 11th studio LP, is receiving critical praise and making a significant dent with American R&B outlets. A closer view shows that “No Sleeep” is not at all a “return to form” as so much a continuation of an established form. Despite some of the criminal indifference shown to her last few albums in her third decade, Jackson remained committed to quality R&B music with that unmistakable twist. That alone has made Jackson the biggest black female crossover act since Diana Ross.

Jackson’s discography still languishes in the shadow of the moniker of her being “an entertainer,” instead of her being seen as a singer and songwriter who also entertains. This brief overview takes one into Jackson’s awesome body of work cultivated over 30 years. Before checking out her soon-to-be released new record, get reacquainted with the albums that laid the groundwork for it.

1982Janet Jackson (A&M Records)
Drop Date: September 21, 1982
Notable Staff: René Moore; Foster Sylvers; Leon F. Sylvers III; Angela Winbush
Summary: Janet Jackson captures that precocious teen soul epitomized by the post-disco epoch of early 1980s R&B. In remarkable voice throughout, Jackson turned in robust takes on singles (“Say You Do”) and album fare (“The Magic Is Working”). Only on the quieter moments does her sugar spin too saccharine, suggesting none of the power she would occupy later as a balladeer. Of note is the closing number on the record, the new wave inspired “Come Give Your Love to Me.” With its odd, but hypnotic time signatures and prominent guitar, the song foreshadowed Jackson’s experimentation with rock music on later projects.
Notable Single: “Say You Do
Album Cut to Check Out: “Come Give Your Love to Me”

1984Dream Street (A&M Records)
Drop Date: October 23, 1984
Notable Staff: Pete Bellotte; Marlon Jackson; Jesse Johnson; Giorgio Moroder
Summary: Not dissimilar from the black dance music framework of Janet Jackson, Dream Street ended up as her initial bid for crossover appeal. However, the record lacked a narrative and became a bit of a messy medley of tunes, but there are many interesting sides present. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the men who worked primarily alongside the Empress of Pop Donna Summer, turned in some fun widgets for Jackson with “Dream Street” and “Communication,” the former being the strongest of the pair.

Truly memorable were the lone hits of the LP, “Don’t Stand Another Chance” and “Fast Girls,” the latter marking Jackson’s first Minneapolis collaboration with Jesse Johnson of The Time. The city had become known for some of the boldest new sounds in black music by 1984; unconsciously, Jackson had already predicted her next maneuver.
Notable Single: “Dream Street
Album Cut to Check Out: “If It Takes All Night”

1986Control (A&M Records)
Drop Date: February 4, 1986
Notable Staff: James Harris III, Janet Jackson; Terry Lewis
Summary: The last in a line of redefining “black blockbusters” of the early-to-mid 1980s, Control set a new precedent. Unlike Thriller (1982), Private Dancer (1984), Purple Rain (1984), and Whitney Houston (1985), Control maintained its foothold in the urban realm but managed to entice white audiences without softening its black aesthetic. Courtesy of former Time members, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and a musical landscape that had finally shrugged its fear of all things “disco” (read: black), Control was the right record at the right time.

Equal parts hip-hop, soul and black pop, this new canvas allowed Jackson to emerge as a songwriter and co-producer. Control’s run of singles “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Nasty,” and “Let’s Wait Awhile” soundtracked a generation and rewrote the rule book for modern rhythm and blues.
Notable Single: “Nasty
Album Cut to Check Out: “He Doesn’t Even Know I’m Alive”

1989Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (A&M Records)
Drop Date: September 18, 1989
Notable Staff: James Harris III; Janet Jackson; Terry Lewis
Summary: When Rhythm Nation arrived, its presentation was grand and efficient in announcing Jackson’s newest version of herself. Granted, only four songs lyrically addressed “social issues,” with the steely “Rhythm Nation” and “The Knowledge” being the stand outs; the remainder of Rhythm Nation concerned itself with matters of the heart. Whether it was ice cold funk (“Miss You Much”) or a redesign of classic soul (“Love Will Never Do (Without You)”), Jackson’s new sonic print fit her like a veritable glove. Yet, ballads like “Lonely,” “Come Back to Me,” and “Someday Is Tonight” revealed a more mysterious and sensual Jackson existed under the giddy surface of stuff like “Escapade.”
Notable Single: “Miss You Much
Album Cut to Check Out: “The Knowledge”

1993janet. (Virgin Records)
Drop Date: May 18, 1993
Notable Staff: James Harris III, Janet Jackson, Terry Lewis
Summary: janet. officially drew the curtain back on Jackson’s sexuality. She shared that her sex had a myriad of forms, but celebrated monogamy. It was not used as a tool to shock or provoke, rather it invited listeners to partake in a form of aural voyeurism. Warm tones in modern jazz (“That’s the Way Love Goes”), house music (“Throb”) and Quiet Storm (“The Body That Loves You”) acted as the ultimate backdrop in expressing a connection between the carnal and the romantic.

Unfortunately, janet. suffered from a form of pop indecision. Songs such as “This Time” and “What’ll I Do” came off cloying in their need for validation from an audience she’d already wooed and won with her broad R&B style. That said, the record remains the pivot point in Jackson’s discography as far as establishing the theme to inform all subsequent albums that came in this one’s wake.
Notable Single: “If
Album Cut to Check Out: “Where Are You Now?”

1997The Velvet Rope (Virgin Records)
Drop Date: October 7, 1997
Notable Staff: James Harris III; Janet Jackson; Terry Lewis
Summary: Through neo-soul, Jackson once again gained album uniformity that led her to one of two creative apogees in her artistic lifespan. The Velvet Rope was a semi-confessional work, as heard through the taut groove of “My Need” and the reflective of “Every Time.” Its darker shades of love, desire and self-exploration both excited and divided listeners, with many later coming to the realization that this record had Jackson pushing at the borders of what her music could do.

Those concerned that Jackson had gotten lost in the reeds of rumination need not have worried. There was a bit of mirth present on the cheeky and punchy jams “Go Deep” and “Free Xone.” As they should, albums like The Velvet Rope represent a moment in time and those album’s maintain their mystique by not being purposely repeated again.
Notable Single: “I Get Lonely
Album Cut to Check Out: “Empty”

2001

All for You (Virgin Records)
Drop Date: April 24, 2001
Notable Staff: James Harris III, Janet Jackson, Terry Lewis, Dana Stinson
Summary: Out of all of Jackson’s recordings, All for You is showing its age as the years pass. Possibly a byproduct of its eagerness for millennial modernity being a bit too exposed. In all fairness, everyone was rushing to find the pulse of “the now” at the very beginning of the last decade. Looking back, it was breath of fresh air. Funky, but with its melodies more pronounced, it was hard to argue with pieces like “All for You” (with that amazing sample of Change’s “The Glow of Love”), the acoustic fantasia of “Someone to Call My Lover,” and Canto cool of “China Love.”

Excusing its preoccupation with urban dilution, the structure of the record is where it collapsed in on itself. The front and back ends of the LP contained the most flavor, which left the middle to sag slightly. All for You is Jackson at her most pop, which while smarter than most, was not up to her usual soulful standard.
Notable Single: “Doesn’t Really Matter
Album Cut to Check Out: “Better Days”

2004Damita Jo (Virgin Records)
Drop Date: March 30, 2004
Notable Staff: Dallas Austin; Sven Anders Bagge; Arnthor Birgisson; Cathy Dennis; James Harris III; Janet Jackson; Terry Lewis; Kanye West
Summary: Removed from the politics that sank the LP, commercially and critically, at the time of its release, Damita Jo gave Jackson her second creative career high. Managing to retain the core of her identifiable sound but move it forward, Jackson was dually progressive and definitive. This was something that All for You shot for and missed, which made Damita Jo a rejuvenating listening experience.

Jackson’s fusion of urban music with European dance textures (“SloLove”) and power pop (“Just a Little While”) felt exploratory and free instead of labored and conscious. It’s a shame that Janet Jackson’s best work, and one of the better R&B records of the period, is just beginning to receive its due.
Notable Single: “I Want You
Album Cut to Check Out: “Island Life”

200620 Y.O. (Virgin Records)
Drop Date: September 26, 2006
Notable Staff: Johntá Austin; Jermaine Dupri; James Harris III; Janet Jackson, Terry Lewis; Ernest Dion Wilson
Summary: Created in lieu of the then 20th anniversary of Control, 20 Y.O.’s nom de guerre seems silly now, but its use of modern R&B and hip-hop is anything but that. Self-referential to the sharpest ear and unapologetically danceable, the debut side of 20 Y.O. contained everything from snap music (“Show Me”) to electro-hop reappropriation (“Get It Out Me”); this time the grooves were acid etched.

The second side gave Jackson room to spread out vocally. Before, her voice was pleasurable and pretty, but 20 Y.O. evinced a developed richness in her tone that eyed her late brother Michael with “Enjoy” and “Days Go By.”* Overall, it’s a veteran record that cemented Jackson as one of the R&B talents of her era aging gracefully.
Notable Single: “So Excited
Album Cut to Check Out: “Days Go By”

2008Discipline (Island/Def Jam Records)
Drop Date: February 26, 2008
Notable Staff: Jermaine Dupri; Dernst Emile II; Rodney Jerkins; Terius Nash; Christopher Stewart
Summary: It’s similar, from a sonic structural point of view, to All for You when looking at its shortcomings. Unlike that album, Discipline’s contents are appreciating better over time. Joining her eponymous LP and Dream Street as the only albums to include no input from longtime co-creators Jam and Lewis, Jackson aligned herself with students of the Jam and Lewis technique.

The material manages to be radio-ready, but it is delivered in that familiar way that can only be described as Janet Jackson at her best. The run of singles ― “Feedback,” “Rock with U,” “LUV,” “Can’t B Good” ― are her strongest since the Control batch. In particular, the laid-back synth riff on “Feedback” that would make the departed King of Punk Funk, Rick James, envious. With the removal of “The Greatest X” and “The One,” Discipline could have been close to perfection.
Notable Single: “Feedback
Album Cut to Check Out: “Rollercoaster”

For current information on Janet Jackson, visit her official website.

*-Only available on the Japanese pressing of 20 Y.O.

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About Quentin Harrison

With a decade of experience, Quentin Harrison remains one of the most unique voices in the field of popular music critique. His work has been featured in numerous CD reissues and online outlets, including his now retired website, The QH Blend. The second book in his “Record Redux” series, “Record Redux: Carly Simon,” will be available in April 2017. His first book, “Record Redux: Spice Girls,” released in July 2016, is the definitive critical guide to the music of the U.K. quintet.