Reviewed on this page:
Janet Jackson - Control -
Rhythm Nation 1814 -
janet. - The Velvet Rope - All For You - Damita Jo -
20 Y.O. - Discipline
It can't be easy to get out of the shadow of the Jackson family, but little sister Janet made
it. After a stint as a child actor (mostly on TV sitcom Good
Times) and a couple of flop albums, Jackson hooked up with producers Jimmy
"Jam" Harris and Terry Lewis, who had something to prove themselves
after working for Prince (they'd been fired
from his side project The Time). Their
first album together went straight to #1, and so has every album they've
done since, which is an especially incredible achievement when you
consider that she has about the thinnest, least expressive voice you
ever heard. If you think her success is due to the Jackson name, ask
yourself how many records LaToya or Tito have sold lately; Janet
co-writes and co-produces the majority of her work, which probably
Janet Jackson (1982)
Listening to Jackson's child-like, personality-challenged voice on this disc, you'd never dream what a commercial juggernaut she would become.
Bobby Watson, René Moore and Àngela Winbush produced the first side, and they go mostly with bouncy, uptempo post-disco ("You'll Never Find (A Love Like Mine)" - not the similarly titled Lou Rawls hit). But only "Young Love" has the catchiness Winbush is capable of, and the drippy side-closing ballad "Love And My Best Friend" is nearly unendurable.
Foster Sylvers and Jerry Weaver take over on Side Two, and their sound is up-to-the-minute, with aggressive synth bass and chorused rhythm guitars ("Don't Mess Up This Good Thing"). Unfortunately, their taste in tunes is abysmal (the ballad "Forever Yours"; the pseudo-New Wave "Come Give Your Love To Me"). The band on their tracks includes Wardell Potts Jr. (drums), Sylvers (bass), Earnest Reed (guitar), and horns and strings arranged by Gene Dozier; Watson, Moore and Winbush handled most of their own instruments, with help from James Jamerson Jr., Tony Maiden, and Jeff Lorber.
Dream Street (1984)
Big brother Michael got involved in this one, but it didn't sell either.
This is one of those records that's been so widely copied, it's hard
to remember what a breakthrough it was when it first came out: a
pseudo-concept album built around an assertive (if helium-voiced)
heroine with minimal, mostly keyboard-based backing tracks that owe
about as much to hip-hop as to Prince ("What
Have You Done For Me Lately," "Nasty"). For a change, drum machines are
used to create complex rhythm tracks rather than as a crutch (title
track) and when Jam and Lewis tackle a pop dance track, they succeed
with that too: "When I Think Of You" is featherlight but adorable. I'm
not as crazy about the ballad "Let's Wait Awhile," but it does give the
record more breadth. Oh, incidentally, all the songs I've mentioned were
Top Five hits; "The Pleasure Principle" (produced by Monte Moir) was
also a single. The lesser tracks aren't worth mentioning, but there
should be enough here to satisfy any 80s pop consumer. There are next
to no outside musicians aside from fellow Time alumnus Jellybean
Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989)
Another huge hit, but it's kind of a mess. There's not much here recalling the
previous album, which is a good news/bad news situation: Jam and Lewis
go sentimental on several ballads with limp love-the-world lyrics
("State Of The World," "The Knowledge" - "Livin' In A World (They Didn't
Make)" is in the same mold but so beautifully melodic you won't mind),
and by-the-numbers dance tracks like "Alright" are just annoying.
For better and (mostly) for worse, the title track was instrumental in
crossing over hip-hop sampling techniques to mainstream R&B. Too bad
the sample of Sly Stone's "Thank You
falettinme be mice elf agin" is a ripoff rather than a reinvention.
"Escapade" is light pop reminiscent of early
Madonna in more ways than one, and "Black
Cat" is a pseudo-rocker with no fewer than four guitarists, but the only
track that really recaptures the spirit of Control is the first
single, "Miss You Much" - it's cotton candy and chicken grease at the
same time. (DBW)
Jackson's message this time is "Enough politics, let's get laid."
Many tracks, from the opening "That's The Way Love Goes" through
"Throb," are oddly similar to Madonna's
Erotica: ostinato keyboards and drum programming, heavy
breathing, all the way to the psychobabble spoken word refrains and
"Look at me, I'm being naughty" dirty talk. The record winds up with
several ballads that obscure their lack of emotional power with
graphic themes ("The Body That Loves You," "Any Time, Any Place"). This
was her third consecutive #1 album with an endless succession of hit
singles, so I guess there's no point in my mentioning how weak and
derivative it all is. Continuing the trend from the previous album,
several tunes are based on samples, including "You Want This" - three
seconds of Kool and the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" looped over a house beat.
"This Time" sounds like Paula Abdul imitating
Janet - Kathleen Battle is brought in to add a touch of class, but her
vibrato-laden performance only reminds me why I dislike most opera
singers. Good points? "Again" is a melodic, lushly orchestrated ballad,
and there are certainly a lot of styles on display: distorted synth
meets acoustic guitar on "If"; "What'll I Do" is a
60s Stax tribute with mostly live instruments - it's enjoyable though
Janet, of course, has nothing resembling the voice for it. Chuck D shows up on the one social
consciousness track, "New Agenda." (DBW)
Design Of A Decade (1995)
A greatest hits with a few new tracks. (DBW)
The Velvet Rope (1997)
There's a lot to like here: it's very long, and has a lot of time-wasting interludes ("Speaker Phone"), but also has the most
precise songwriting and production since Control - strongly hip hop influenced, though less sample-based - with better
vocals. The first single, "Got Till It's Gone," is disappointing: a dreary reggae-influenced number with Q-Tip and an incongruous Joni Mitchell sample. A much better single, the
retro-disco AIDS lament "Together Again" (Janet's "One Sweet Day")
also hit #1. Other successful tracks include "My Need," which marries a gorgeous ballad hook to unusually intrusive
percussion, and the Prince-style hard rock/funk "What About." There are still some silly stunts, but
they don't ruin the fun: classical violinist Vanessa Mae's unaccompanied break on the title song
is plastered onto a solid, aggressive groove (the basis of Queen Latifah's "Brownsville").
Even the tossoffs (the lamebrained dance number "Go Deep") and exercises in self-conscious naughtiness ("Rope Burn," "Free
Xone") are carefully constructed and recorded. The only real losers are the New Jill cover of Rod
Stewart's "Tonight's The Night" and the corny, Michael-like "Special," children's chorus and
all. If you don't enjoy anything on this disc, Janet's not the artist for you.
All For You (2001)
By now, the Jam/Lewis/Jackson production team was just recycling old ideas:
incongruous samples (Carly Simon reworking her "You're So Vain" vocals on the forced, vituperative "Son Of A Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)"),
frothy dance-pop (the leadoff single/title track, based on a Chic-sounding Change sample),
needlessly graphic seduction numbers ("Love Scene (Ooh Baby)," "Would You Mind"). It's very effective in spots (the lighthearted hit "Someone To Call My Lover," with David Barry on guitar)
but dispiriting, especially where the melodies are forgettable ("Come On Get Up," the endless ballad "Truth").
Most of the best songs are collaborations with hip hop wunderkind Rockwilder, who constructs a couple of terrific technowhomp grooves ("Trust A Try," "You Ain't Right").
Most instruments performed or programmed by the producers, plus Mike Scott on guitar and occasional orchestration; no notable guests apart from Simon.
Damita Jo (2004)
You've got to give Jackson credit for one thing: she made a plan and stuck with it. The album's split fifty/fifty between horny dance anthems and horny slow jams, with the entries in each category virtually interchangeable: "Sexhibition," "Warmth," "Moist," ad nauseam. One problem is that most of the songs have no real structure, just an endlessly repeated melodic snippet while Janet whispers in your ear ("Strawberry Bounce"), and the arrangements don't waver either: drum loops, synths, backing vocals, and rarely anything else.
The second single, "All Nite (Don't Stop)," stands out only because it incorporates a sample of Herbie Hancock's "Hang Up Your Hangups"; "My Baby" is distinguished by a weak Kanye West rap.
Jam and Lewis still handle much of the writing and production ("R&B Junkie," with the same early 80s synth tones they used on Glitter; Like You Don't Love Me"), but this time a bunch of outsiders were brought in:
The first single "Just A Little While" (one of the only tracks with guitars) and "Sexhibition" were produced by Dallas Austin, and "Thinkin' Bout My Ex" sounds like an ordinary wistful Janet ballad, but when you check the credits you find it was written and produced by Babyface.
It's a perfunctory, mechanical set, but if you don't give up, you'll be rewarded by "Truly," with the easygoing melodicism of Jackson's best work.
20 Y.O. (2006)
Y'know, I've been tempted to lie about my age (approximately Janet's) too, but try to keep it believable, okay?
Produced by Jam and Lewis, and Jackson's main squeeze Jermaine Dupri.
Though her airy voice hasn't changed, the backing is wispier than before, with most cuts powered only by light keyboards and 80's programmed drums (the uptempo "Show Me"; the ballad "Call On Me" featuring Nelly). The combination is magic on the subtle yet compelling dance track "Do It 2 Me." There's nothing approaching a new idea: another dance track sampling Hancock ("So Excited"); another whispered seduction ("This Body" featuring some guy with marbles in his mouth); more seguerrhea ("20 Pt. 4"). But if she aims low, she doesn't miss the target either: the weakest cut here (probably the stiff Prince knockoff "Love 2 Love")
is better than practically anything on Damita Jo, and there are plenty of memorable midtempo pleasures like "Enjoy."
Jam and Lewis are missing, and more curiously, so is Janet: she didn't co-write or produce anything (except for a ten-second seque). The producers - mostly Rodney Jerkins, Dupri and Manuel Seal - stick doggedly to the same formula, though: wispy vocals, repetitive keyboard and electronic percussion vamps, sexual lyrics (title track; "Roller Coaster") and an occasional regretful ballad (Tricky Stewart's "Greatest X"). It's passable listening ("LUV") but maddeningly familiar (the single "Feedback" rehashes Control's "oh-oh" endlessly).
Does Janet really think another disc of these retreads will return her to prominence, or does she just not care anymore?
The only notable guest is Missy Elliott, who brings some welcome vigor to her "The 1."
What have Wilson & Alroy done for you
lately? Damned if we know.