Janet Jackson’s ninth long player, 20 Y.O. (Virgin, 2006), was created to commemorate the distance of two decades from her junior offering, Control (A&M, 1986).
Control, the last in a series of “black blockbuster albums” that lined the first part of the 1980s, managed a feat that those records had not―reaching a white audience as a project that was unflinchingly loyal to her black audience.
Jackson’s first American hits―on the dance and R&B charts (then referred to as the “Black Singles” chart)―were singles from her eponymous 1982 debut on A&M Records. Said singles were catchy and competent but didn’t host Jackson’s persona completely.
It was Control, piloted by former Time band members / production duo James Harris III and Terry Lewis, that let Jackson find her voice. Many records followed with an ensuing trail of sales and accolades; by the time Jackson arrived to the middle of her third decade of recording, other variables were at play. Notably, Jackson faced navigating a post-Super Bowl XXXVIII realm that had her operating outside of the zeitgeist spotlight quicker than what would have happened naturally.
The preceding album, and second creative apogee for Jackson, Damita Jo (Virgin, 2004) had seen her come home to her R&B roots. This trend continued with 20 Y.O.
Jackson, Harris, and Lewis assumed their normal roles as the nucleic trio for the record and invited several producers / songwriters on board to keep Jackson’s trademark sound broad.
Kwamé Holland was, initially, one of the principal players courted but later exchanged for Jackson’s then-partner Jermaine Dupri, a music industry mover and shaker in his own right.
The final roster of songwriters and producers on deck for 20 Y.O., outside of Jackson, Harris, Lewis, and Dupri, included Manuel Seal, Johnta Austin, The Avila Brothers, James “LRoc” Phillips, and Ernest “No I.D.” Wilson.
Wilson in particular brought a certain gravitas to 20 Y.O. as a highly respected figure in R&B and hip-hop; specifically, he had handled the sound on the first three albums for the legendary Chicago emcee Common. In the past, Jackson weathered light criticism for alternating between her more direct R&B style and a relaxed black pop aesthetic, but in the wake of her post-Superbowl exile from MTV and pop (read: white) radio, black radio and media outlets showed an outpouring of support. So, as 20 Y.O. took shape, it was clear that Jackson’s relationship with her R&B fans would be central to the LP.
Split into two halves, Jackson created a taut record that stripped back from the length of her last five albums.
The first side rocked a heady “retro-modern” urban dance music slant evinced by her striking cover of Debbie Deb’s freestyle hit “Lookout Weekend” recorded during the 20 Y.O. sessions. The cover didn’t make the final cut for the LP but was gifted to fans as an online download via Jackson’s official website in May 2006 as an album taster.
The original compositions boasted svelte production muscle complemented with intelligent samples from Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit!” (on “So Excited”), Kraftwerk’s “Boing Boom Tschak” (on “Show Me”), Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (on “Get It Out Me”) and Brenda Russell’s “If Only for One Night” (on “Do It 2 Me”). With these tracks it was all about the beat and groove, more playfully caustic than ever before.
The second side returned melody to the aural equation as Jackson alternated between ambient neo-soul (“Take Care,” “Love 2 Love”), classic soul (“With U,” “Enjoy”) and radio-ready R&B-pop (“Call on Me,” “Daybreak,” “Roll Witchu”).
Each side held a “star cut.”
Side one included “This Body,” a steamy piece of R&B-rock-rap that had Jackson, lyrically, at her best. A brilliant reversal of female objectification, Jackson steps into the persona of a pin-up come to life to tease, and conversely objectify, the male viewer / listener who, ultimately, cannot reach the real Jackson or her fantasy doppelgänger. The music matches the intensity of the narrative, its ending descending into a manic electric guitar solo replete with steel drum rimshots.
In lieu of the Superbowl fiasco, a repressive revisionism sewed the untruth that Jackson’s sexuality was based in shock value, “This Body” demonstrated that it was bedrocked in self-expression. Jackson had mastered marrying lyric to music to create an experience for the listener to gain greater erotic exploration and / or knowledge through her music―not to generate controversy.
Side two held “Days Go By,” an ethereal slice of soul balladry that alongside “Roll Witchu” was only included on the Japanese pressing of 20 Y.O.
“Days Go By” staged a fuller, richer vocal tone from Jackson. Throughout the whole of the album, Jackson’s singing echoed her brother Michael Jackson’s versatility, making 20 Y.O. Jackson’s vocal showcase. An additional underpinning of subtle nods to a variety of past Jackson recordings from singles like “I Get Lonely” to deeper album cuts like “China Love” lent the long player an even greater resonance to longtime followers.
Jackson dropped the album on September 26, 2006; it had already been preceded by two singles in “Call on Me” and “So Excited.” The stated singles boasted collaborations with Nelly (on “Call on Me”) and Khia (on “So Excited”); Jackson’s hip-hop partnerships were commonplace, present since her fourth long player, Rhythm Nation 1814 (A&M, 1989).
“Call on Me”―with its interpolation of pre-Control era Jam and Lewis production from the S.O.S. Band’s 1983 hit “Tell Me If You Still Care”―gifted Jackson with her 15th number one charter on the U.S. R&B Singles chart and a respectful showing on the U.S. Hot 100 (#25). “So Excited” found favor on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart (#1) and it also impacted via local urban radio markets (i.e.- Atlanta, Chicago, etc.) alongside the record’s final single, “With U.”
By this time, Jackson’s international chart presence had decreased, but America was still receptive to her charms. 20 Y.O. landed gracefully on the the U.S. Billboard 200 (#2) and the U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop (#2) Album charts. Sales had slowed for Jackson by this point, but the as the record reached its natural commercial conclusion, it did so with a platinum certification in the United States.
Critically, the LP got a fairer reception than Damita Jo did, but in general, the record fell victim to the advent of social media / “stan culture” influence over the professional medium of music critique and commentary.
Then there were other reviews of the period that misread 20 Y.O.’s intention completely; often they read like coded speech stating, “How dare you attempt to make a ‘black’ record?” Jackson had become a hostage to the pop mainstream’s version of “acceptable blackness,” and her redrawing of her own blackness in her music had, effectively, alienated Jackson from a portion of her non-R&B base.
It’s ironic that Jackson, who had continued shattering the racial glass ceiling in popular music with Control was now accused of “pandering” versus genuinely continuing to nurture her bond with black listeners whose support pre-dated Control by four years. Still, 20 Y.O. was a hit with Jackson’s loyal R&B crowd despite cynics and secured her a Grammy nomination in 2007 for “Best Contemporary R&B Album.”
A decade removed from its release, 20 Y.O. stands as a confident display of Jackson’s sharpened skills worth rediscovering.