Rating Janet Jackson
As Janet Jackson drops her new single Made For Now, Shaun Ponsonby looks at the back catalogue of a genuinely daring, influential and underappreciated artist.
“No, my first name ain’t ‘Baby’; it’s Janet. Miss Jackson if you’re nasty…”
That was the iconic cry on 1986’s Nasty. Miss Jackson had been famous for most of her life, thanks to her brothers. The Jackson family were already icons, especially to black America. It could be argued that even if the Jackson 5 folded after their initial string of Motown hits, they would still be significant.
But they didn’t; they continued, collectively and individually and became a cultural force.
Janet didn’t really want to sing at first – she was an actress. But once she committed herself, there was no stopping her. The Janet Jackson story is just as compelling as her brother’s, as are her achievements and her music. Since 1986, pretty much every female pop star has been trying to out-Janet Janet, whether that’s Britney Spears, Rihanna or even Beyonce.
In no way did Janet ride off the coattails of her famous last name. She is probably the only Jackson who truly managed to escape Michael’s shadow, and become an icon of her own making. In a lot of ways, she was the more creative of the two – no Janet Jackson album sounds like any other Janet Jackson album. Each has their own theme, their own purpose, and the production team of Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis is one of the greatest in music history, up there with The Beatles and George Martin (that’s right, I went there) .
Many have dismissed her. I regularly find myself arguing the virtues of Janet to people who write her off as the second most famous Jackson pop singer. And, lest we forget, the fall-out from the 2004 Superbowl incident was immediate and unjust, creating problems that she was unable to escape.
But in the long run, it may have made her story all the more powerful. She is currently riding a new wave, gaining the respect that she is entitled to. She defeated the odds to become an icon in the first place, and now she is doing it again by reclaiming her status after she was abandoned by everyone.
She releases a new single today – Made For Now, featuring Daddy Yankee. At the time of writing we don’t know for sure if this is a taster for a new album, or a standalone release. In any case, we figured it would be a good opportunity to go through Janet’s back catalogue and give her astonishing career the respect it deserves.
11. 20 YO 
It’s 2004, Janet Jackson is still one of the biggest stars in the world. Each of her albums for the last two decades have sold around 8-10 million copies. So, it is no surprise that she is invited to perform at the Superbowl.
There’s a whole succession of stars joining her; Nelly, P. Diddy, Kid Rock. But Janet is opening and closing the performance, with All For You and a mash-up of Rhythm Nation and The Knowledge.
At the end, there is a surprise performer – Justin Timberlake, still fresh off the success of his debut solo album Justified. He performs Rock Your Body with Janet, and on the line “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song”, he tears away a part of Jackson’s costume, and for a brief nanosecond, Janet’s breast is exposed to the world.
Cue arguably the most bizarre pandemonium America has ever seen. For years following the event, this was the most searched news item in the history of the internet. YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim claims that this incident was what led to the creation of the site as there was no place for people who missed the event to see it.
I remember us finding it kinda funny here in the UK. But that wasn’t the case in the US. There were around two million complaints to the FCC, record fines were handed out. And whilst Timberlake got off scot free, Jackson was vilified, ridiculed and blacklisted by the media conglomerates who own just about every radio and TV station in America.
Whilst 2004’s Damita Jo was the first album Jackson released following the incident, the bulk of the work had been completed by the time of the Superbowl. 20 YO is the first project begun since the controversy, and you can tell that it has knocked her confidence.
For starters, there is a clutter of producers here, as opposed to the trusted team of Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Janet – and yes, she is a part of that team. There is only one song that the trio work without the help of others. That song, Take Care, comes near the end, and it is no surprise that it is one of the strongest cuts on the record (though the preceding, breezy Enjoy is by far the album’s highlight).
The album was billed as having an 80s feel – the title refers to the fact that her breakthrough Control was 20 years old in 2006, so when opener So Excited kicks off with a sample of Herbie Hancock’s Rockit, it is actually a thrill to hear. But things go south very quickly, and the whole thing becomes a confused mess that doesn’t seem to know what it is.
Lead single Call On Me was a duet with Nelly, which was written without Janet and seems like an attempt to get her back on the radio post-“Nipplegate” by having him as the lead artist. It worked to a point, it did hit number one on the R&B chart and was her biggest hit in some European countries in half a decade. But the problem with it is emblematic of the album as a whole; it doesn’t feel like Janet.
10. Discipline 
Only marginally better than 20 YO, Discipline is an odd record in the Janet oeuvre.
For starters, for the first time in over 20 years, Jackson herself has virtually nothing to do with the album. She has just one writing credit, on an interlude called 4 Words. Other than that, she passes the legwork off to her producers.
And that brings us to the other oddity regarding this album; Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are nowhere to be seen. Anywhere. At all. Their role was lessened on 20 YO, but here she didn’t even call them.
Perhaps she just wanted a change after the disappointing 20 YO, but it doesn’t really work well enough. For an artist who made a point of being an individual, this really could have been recorded by any female pop star in 2008 and nobody would have batted an eyelid. You could easily replace Janet’s voice with Ashanti or Britney Spears on a song like Rock With U and not much would change.
To underline the point, when Missy Elliot shows up on The 1, she totally upstages Janet on her own album.
This is the only album Janet released on Island Records, meaning she actively sought out a deal to make Discipline. You have to ask yourself why she bothered. She doesn’t sound like she wants to be there, and she ended up abandoning the subsequent tour halfway through.
9. Dream Street 
Janet made two albums before Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis came into her life, and she has more or less disowned them both.
Dream Street was the second of these, and is clearly just father Joseph Jackson’s attempt to flog the Jackson name as much as possible. There aren’t many stand out moments, but it’s pleasant enough to listen to it – you’re unlikely to get offended, not even by the curious Cliff Richard duet Two To The Power of Love. With Richard never being a real success in the USA and Jackson yet to make a name for herself as a recording artist, it’s actually hard to understand why this duet even exists.
The only real stand out is Don’t Stand Another Chance, written and produced by brother Marlon and featuring Michael on some pretty charismatic backing vocals. More than anything else from Janet’s pre-Control albums, the seeds of where she was going rhythmically are firmly planted in this tune. Of note, Michael wouldn’t return to the studio with his baby sister until their smash duet Scream over a decade later.
It’s hardly memorable, but given the context of what the album was designed to do, it isn’t terrible either. Ultimately, LaToya’s Heart Don’t Lie fared much better than any of the singles from Dream Street. That sounds unfathomable in retrospect, but in a year full of Jackson side projects in the wake of Thriller (on top of Janet and LaToya’s albums, there was also Jermaine’s Dynamite, Rebbie’s Centipede and The Jacksons’ reunion Victory album and tour), it makes perfect sense.
8. Damita Jo 
Jimmy Jam has stated that when they came to make Damita Jo, Janet told Jam’s production partner Terry Lewis to write the lyrics as she didn’t feel like she had much to say. It was the first time Janet had taken a back seat, and it kinda shows.
Janet said in interviews that the concept of Damita Jo – her middle name – is supposed to represent her various personalities. This would imply that it is her most personal album to date, yet it’s pretty hard to navigate. Although it was obviously an influential concept that other artists have used since (Beyonce on I Am…Sasha Fierce, Britney Spears on Britney Jean and Tori Amos on American Doll Posse spring to mind), it doesn’t quite feel fully realised on Damita Jo.
Perhaps it is unsurprising considering that mid-way through the production of the album, “Nipplegate” came close to destroying her career.
There is a bit of a cohesion issue when compared to the last two decades of her catalogue. This probably shouldn’t be surprising seeing as, on top of Jam and Lewis, there was also Dallas Austin, Babyface, Anders Bagge, Scott Storch, Télépopmusik, Kanye West and Avila Brothers with their hands on the mixing desk.
That’s not to say there aren’t major highlights, with West and John Legend contributing to the doo wop ballad I Want You before the release of both The College Drop Out and Get Lifted. Containing elements of electro-funk, grime, samba, Latin, dance-pop, ambient techno and dancehall, All Nite (Don’t Stop) would been a dancefloor smash if it wasn’t for the blackout.
Lead single Just a Little While was supposedly leaked to radio stations ahead of time, which seems unlikely considering the blacklist and may have just been some organised faux controversy to shift focus away from Jackson’s breast. Nevertheless, it is a glorious power pop tune that sits comfortably with the pop punk I remember on the radio back in 2004. And the laid back yet danceable SloLove may have been a single if the album’s campaign wasn’t cut short – with no supporting tour owing to the backlash (Jackson wouldn’t return to the road until the aborted Rockwitu Tour in 2008).
It’s far from Jackson’s best album (evidently, it’s nowhere near the top spot, is it?), and it certainly represents the beginning of her decline. But there is still much to take from it, even if it’s the first time since 1984 that you could find yourself skipping tracks.
7. Janet Jackson 
I can see rating this higher than Damita Jo being a little on the controversial side, but I guess it all boils down to context; Damita Jo came after one of the most astonishing runs in the history of pop; hit after hit, reinvention and innovation. But Janet’s debut comes with no precedent, and no expectation.
Janet was just two years old when her brothers were whisked off to Motown, becoming the first real black teen idols – the first black faces on lunchboxes, the first black kids to be on the cover of teen magazines, the first black cartoon characters to not be a racist caricature.
When they moved to Epic Records, they were given a variety show on CBS television; The Jacksons series was the first prime time variety show with an all-black cast. They couldn’t help but rope in little Janet, who fast became the break out star of the show, leading her to land celebrated roles in the family sitcoms Good Times and D’ffrent Strokes, and later the TV series of Fame.
By the time the 80s hit, the boys had fired Joseph as their manager, so he tightened his grip on the sibs he still had some power over – and this included Janet.
She actually didn’t know if she wanted to pursue singing; she was doing well as an actress, and she was pretty damn good at it too. She still has an underused acting talent – check her film stealing scenes in any of the otherwise mediocre Tyler Perry films. But her father persisted, and this was the result.
Although there isn’t much character on it, in terms of a frothy, lightweight pop album made by a teen idol TV star, it’s not all bad. Unlike her later efforts, it has no meaning, and it is all pretty bland. But her disowning of the album meant I was expecting the worst. So, when I heard it for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised by some of it.
There are a couple of infectious tunes, especially opener Say You Do and first single Young Love. You’ll Never Find (A Love Like Mine) is a serviceable post-disco tune. Had it not been a Janet Jackson album, and instead just some faceless singer who never did anything ever again, it might be remembered a touch more fondly, but this was never going to set the world alight. Her biggest claim to recorded fame in 1982 was always going “Na, na, na, na” on P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).
6. Unbreakable 
After over a decade in the creative wilderness, Janet experienced something of a return to form with 2015’s comeback album, Unbreakable.
A lot had happened since 2008’s disappointing Discipline. Brother Michael had passed away, she had a new husband (the couple have since had a child and filed for divorce), she re-established herself as an actress and published a self-help book, detailing her struggles with body image and self-esteem.
After the mess of 20 YO and Discipline she returned to the comfortable embrace of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – and they prove that they can still be a formidable team well into the 21st century.
We first got a taste of it with No Sleeep, a gorgeous quiet storm track featuring J Cole. Ballads were always one of Janet’s strongest points – from the gentle plea of Control’s Let’s Wait Awhile to the simple Again – and No Sleeep fits right alongside them.
But what is most striking about the album is that for all the nods to her past – such as in the interpolation of I Get Lonely in the seductive Dammmn Baby, or even the supposed tribute to Michael on Broken Hearts Heal (a much more successful amalgamation of the two sibling’s sounds than Scream was) – she is simultaneously pushing forward.
Black Eagle sounds like nothing else in her back catalogue. It is so sparse that it is almost acapella, Janet only being accompanied by finger snaps and some ambient soundscapes. Equally unique is Well Travelled; there’s some alt country, some indie, some R&B. It’s anthemic, but laid back.
She also arguably puts in the best vocal performance of her career. Focussing on her lower register, her voice sounds rich, warm, welcoming.
It shows her coming out of the post-“Nipplegate” blackout and she has found herself again. If it doesn’t quite match her greatest records, well that’s to be expected. It is almost as if the first half of the album reminds us who Janet is, and the second could be telling us where she is going.
To that end, it may end up being a transitional moment, but it is a major step in the right direction after the previous decade.
5. All For You 
This was Janet’s first album since her divorce from second husband Rene Elizondo (her first, to James DeBarge, ended in annulment in 1985), so you might expect it to carry on some of the more introspective sentiments carried on previous effort The Velvet Rope. But, proving that you can never truly pin her down, Jackson opts for what is probably her most joyful album since 1986’s Control.
The title track is, of course, one of Janet’s most enduring hits. Based around a sample of Change’s The Glow of Love, it is a faultless summer jam that could easily slide onto the radio with today’s Chic-ified disco resurgence, as much as it did in 2001 next to the new generation of pop starlets; Britney, Christina, Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child.
But the idea that All For You is just a throwaway pop album is seriously undervaluing Janet’s creativity and daring nature. Take Trust a Try, a genuine contender for the most avant garde song on a pop album ever, fusing mock-operetta and hard rock with classical, dance, hip hop and a touch of scat. None of those things go together on paper, but it all works and anyone who dares suggest that Janet isn’t a true artist should listen to that one song.
In truth, other than Trust a Try, the best moments on the album are the singles; Someone To Call My Lover, Doesn’t Really Matter and the bizarre Son of a Gun, which has the unique distinction of featuring Carly Simon rapping.
Of note, this is the only year since Janet became a superstar where both she and Michael released new albums, with himdropping Invincible in the autumn. Whilst Invincible may have sold more on the back of the MJ machine, All For You is undoubtedly the superior album, and the one that made the greater impression on the public at large.
If there is a criticism, it’s that like Michael’s album, it does feel like a few tracks could have been dropped to make it a more cohesive whole, as it is probably a little too long. But its best moments prove that Janet remained a true force to be reckoned with.
Maybe this is the benefit of hindsight, but it feels like All For You is more of a full stop than a new beginning. She presents to us who she has been up to this point, and the fall-out over the next few years only heightens this sense. But it still features some of Miss Jackson’s most satisfying and creative moments.
4. The Velvet Rope 
By the mid-1990s, Janet Jackson had proven herself to be one of the most powerful and commanding women in the business, probably second only to Madonna. During the promotion of 1993’s janet. album, brother Michael found himself in the middle of the well publicised personal turmoil that threatened to destroy him.
When he was ready to come back to work, he did so by calling up his little sister for the duet Scream – using not only Janet, but Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. At that moment, Michael needed Janet in a way that Janet never needed Michael.
That was the professional position Janet was in when she started working on what would become The Velvet Rope, but as you may gather from the album cover (Janet hiding her face from view) her personal circumstances couldn’t have been more different.
She faced a long-term case of depression, stemming from childhood and adolescent traumas, including body dysmorphia, anorexia and self-harm. When it came time to make a new record, she used her platform as catharsis and therapy, with lyrical themes addressing depression (Empty), self-worth (Special) and domestic violence (What About), along with more daring (for the time) areas of sexuality.
Janet had always been popular within the LGBTQ+ community, but The Velvet Rope took this one step beyond. On paper, the idea of Janet covering Rod Stewart’s Tonight’s The Night sticks out as a real oddity, but she plays with gender throughout the lyrics, switching her desire between a male and female partner. Then there is, of course, an infamous interlude on the album that features Janet supposedly masturbating whilst talking on the phone with Lisa Marie Presley. And of course, the bouncy, house-inspired Together Again is Janet’s tribute to friends who had lost their battle with AIDS.
The public got its first taste of The Velvet Rope via Got Til It’s Gone, inspired by J. Dilla’s remix of the Brand New Heavies’ Sometimes. It incorporates R&B, trip hop, folk and rap, with the basis of the song being built around a sample of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and a guest turn from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip.
The video is equally notable, with Janet portraying a lounge singer in South Africa during apartheid, blending 60s and 70s African culture. When I want to prove Janet’s brilliance to people, this tends to be the clip I use.
Of all Janet’s albums, this is arguably the richest and the one that can inspire the most discussion. It remains a blueprint in popular music, with pretty much everyone drawing inspiration from it; Kanye West (808s & Heartbreak), Solange (True EP), Patrick Stump (Soul Punk), FKA Twigs (Water Me), Jay Z (December 4th), The Weeknd (Thursday) and pretty much anyone who performs alternative R&B (Frank Ocean, Miguel).
Over 20 years have gone by and The Velvet Rope hasn’t aged a day.
3. janet. 
It’s actually kind of funny to think that Janet sang an ode to abstinence in 1986’s Let’s Wait Awhile, but by 1993 was singing an ode to fucking in public with Any Time, Any Place.
Jimmy Jam has said that with 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, they were aiming for an 80s version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. By that same token, her follow-up echoes the album Gaye made following his magnum opus; Let’s Get It On, one of the most sensual albums ever made.
A lot had changed for Janet by now. The tremendous success of Rhythm Nation had defined her once and for all, just as her contract with A&M was up for renewal. She chose to move to Virgin for a whopping $40 million, briefly making her the most valuable artist in the world (although Michael would break it when he re-signed to Sony). But if Virgin were expecting a re-tread of her 80s hits, they were in for a shock. Janet entered the new decade with a new sound.
This much was apparent when lead single That’s The Way Love Goes hit. The industrial New Jack Swing feel of her previous two records had disappeared. This was a smooth, laid back jam perfect for summer evenings. Janet appeared seductive in the video, presenting a new grown up image away from the uniforms prevalent throughout Rhythm Nation.
Not that it is all smooth sailing. If combines trip hop, industrial rock, a sample of Diana Ross & The Supremes’ Some Day We’ll Be Together and God knows what else to create the first real avant garde sounding track in the Janet oeuvre. That it was a top five hit in 1993 is astonishing. In fact, If isn’t the only track to feature a Supremes sample, with Love Child making an appearance in You Want This. Janet makes her own stab at girl group greatness with hidden bonus track Whoops Now.
But don’t let the throwbacks fool you, this was a thoroughly modern record, as made particularly evident in the deep house of Throb.
In the middle of all the madness, the simple, effective ballad Again comes as a moment of sweet relief, as does the frothy What’ll I Do.
Despite the more sensual nature of the album, she still doesn’t shy away from the heavy topics. In the Chuck D-featuring New Agenda, she sings “Because of my gender I’ve heard no too many times/Because of my race I’ve heard no too many times/But with every no I grow in strength/That is why, African-American woman/I stand tall with pride”. It is little wonder that to this day, think pieces are written about how important this album was for black women coming of age and finding who they were; morally, politically and sexually.
2. Control 
As members of The Time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis served their apprenticeship with Prince. But they were too talented to be his puppets.
Following their exit, they produced a few records here and there for some R&B acts – S.O.S. Band, their old friend Alexander O’ Neal. But they hadn’t yet become the hit factory. And then the 19 year old Janet Jackson came into their lives.
Reportedly, when Jam and Lewis were chosen as the producers of Janet’s next album, Joseph had one demand; that they wouldn’t make her sound like Prince.
Although there are traces of the Minneapolis Sound in Control, the duo seemed to make good on their word (although it isn’t hard to imagine You Could Be Mine as a Vanity 6 record). What they did instead was to craft an album that would primarily appeal to the African American community, and with Janet taking control of the lyrical direction, it was destined to be especially popular with young black girls.
The themes that run through Control almost echo something like The Who’s Quadrophenia; universal themes that any young person coming of age can identify with. In the title track she sings “When I was 17 I did what people told me/Did what my father said and let my mother mold me/But that was a long ago, I’m in control”. Whilst maybe not every teenager has dealt with this issue on Janet’s scale (I dunno about you, but my parents weren’t pushing me into recording flop albums to keep the family business going), everybody has had to deal with that attempt at independence.
But there is special attention for young girls. Let’s Wait Awhile was Janet’s first hit ballad, and encourages young girls not to be pressured into sex – a message that was deemed especially poignant at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Songs like the iconic Nasty and her breakthrough hit What Have You Done For Me Lately? come from personal experiences. She told Rolling Stone in 1993; “The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street. They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand…Control meant not only taking care of myself but living in a much less protected world. And doing that meant growing a tough skin. Getting attitude.”
This album is a defiantly black, feminist cry in Reagan’s America – an impossibly conservative time in American history. That a girl of 19 could conjure this movement is astonishing. And other than He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive – which could easily have come from her first two, somewhat more nondescript albums – each and every moment on Control is as vital as the one before it.
With Control, Janet not only created the blueprint for the teenaged female pop starlet that exists to this day. She didn’t just she provide a voice for an audience that had previously been fairly voiceless. She didn’t stop at pushing boundaries with her music videos.
With the help of Jam and Lewis she pioneered the sound of New Jack Swing, which would not only dominate R&B for the next decade but be the comfortable ground where R&B and hip hop could play
1. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 
Control announced Janet as an independent black woman to be reckoned with. But it easily could have been a fluke. Rhythm Nation 1814 solidified her position. She wasn’t the little sister anymore. She was JANET JACKSON.
The record company wanted to play it safe with the follow-up. Control II: The Re-Controlling. They also asked for an album called Scandal, which would detail the Jackson family’s well publicised tabloid fodder. But Janet had other ideas.
It was while watching coverage of the Stockton School Massacre in January 1989 that the themes of the record would take hold; social consciousness, racism, poverty and substance abuse. I realise I’m on shaky ground here…BUT…
People have been raving about Beyonce recently, particularly about how she presents herself as a powerful, socially conscious black woman. I mean…I get it, but I’ve always been suspicious of her motives. She didn’t touch this stuff until her audience were talking about it and it no longer possessed a commercial risk, post-Black Lives Matter. Is it genuine, or is it market research? Beyonce has always been an extremely capitalist artist, after all.
In contrast, Janet began dealing with these issues during a period of intense patriotism (even for America), that bordered on blind nationalism. It wasn’t the first time anyone dealt with these themes, but it was definitely a commercial risk. You had hip hop acts dealing with these issues, but for an out and out pop star to be talking so explicitly about racism, poverty, substance abuse, social injustice wasn’t really “fashionable” at the time.
You can hear it straight away in Rhythm Nation itself. Utilising a sample from Sly & The Family Stone‘s Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin, it sounds almost industrial. The album stuffs social politics into its first few songs – and it would return to the subject intermittently. But between The Knowledge (a defiant, bad ass anthem if there ever was one) and Miss You Much, Janet says “Get the point? Good. Let’s dance“, and balances everything out with a few of her greatest dance and pop songs, highlighted by the breezy Escapade and the staccato Love Will Never Do (Without You).
In a sense these songs easily could have been included on the proposed Control II, but the context in which they’re placed on Rhythm Nation gives them a whole new life.
It’s hard not to compare to Michael. He would never touch these subjects in the same way. He’d never make message songs cook like State of The World – he’d Disney-fy them. He wouldn’t really touch social politics until AFTER the Rodney King tape – when, like Beyonce, it was no longer a commercial risk.
Janet also pioneered New Jack Swing with Jam and Lewis, which he would fill his next album Dangerous with, and he would nick some of Janet‘s visuals for it too (take a look at Janet‘s video for Love Will Never Do and compare it to Michael‘s In The Closet). And Black Cat is a far more authentic rock song than Beat It or Dirty Diana – so much so that Motorhead‘s Lemmy went on public record saying he wanted to record a new version of it with her.
There aren’t any complaints with what is here, only what isn’t. For example, the single mix of Alright is probably superior to the album cut, complete with the rap verse from Heavy D and stylish video – which is a contender for the single coolest thing ever broadcast on MTV, incidentally. And the b-side to Come Back To Me (which slightly echoes Human, Jam and Lewis‘ previous single with the Human League), Skin Game, is an absolute masterpiece that really deserved to be on the album.
With this album I’m gonna go on record saying that Janet truly came out of her shell, and proved herself to be more creative, far more interesting and took many more risks than any of her brothers (yes, even Tito!).
Her current State of the World Tour is based around the same level of social consciousness present in Rhythm Nation 1814. It is both a testament to Janet‘s creativity and a little heartbreaking that the songs she sang in 1989 are as relevant 30 years later as they were at the time.