After first finding fame as part of the Jackson family dynasty, Janet Jackson asserted her independence to become one of the most successful and influential solo artists in pop…
Janet Jackson Released 1982 Label A&M Chart Positions US No.63 UK –
Despite being just 16 years old when she released her self-titled debut album in 1982, Janet Jackson already had close to a decade of performance experience under her belt thanks to regular appearances at her brothers’ Las Vegas revue and acting roles on US TV shows such as Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes.
She initially had no desire to enter the family firm, planning instead to go to college to study business law. However, those aspirations were swiftly vetoed by her strict disciplinarian father/manager Joe, who, having masterminded her brothers’ ascent to pop’s most successful dynasty, secured her a contract with A&M Records.
Trepidatious about how she wanted to present herself, Janet expressed a desire to be regarded as her own entity and was rather reluctant to have her surname on the record. Joe and A&M overruled her, however, seeing the Jackson name as a selling point and assembled a team of the R&B scene’s most promising talent to build the album around her.
Side One of the LP was written and produced by René Moore and Angela Winbush, a couple who’d written, produced, arranged and played on their own hits as well as those songs crafted specifically for Janet. Meanwhile, Side Two was helmed largely by Foster Sylvers from LA-based R&B family group The Sylvers with producer Bobby Watson completing the team.
With success and experience between them, Janet’s only required input was to turn up and sing, a commitment that she slotted in between her studies and acting work.
Janet’s minimal contribution to the record proves to be its greatest weakness. It lacks personality, sticking largely to the identikit pop and R&B of the time with her vocals elevating much of the unremarkable material.
Standouts are the funky opener Say You Do, a track that owes a large debt to Michael’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, the infectious, string-laden You’ll Never Find (A Love Like Mine) which harks back to Philly soul, and Come Give Your Love To Me, which refreshingly incorporates guitars and new wave synths into the mix.
Released in September 1982, Janet Jackson peaked at a disappointing No.63 in the US and failed to produce a hit single. Despite Janet’s attempts to push the album by performing on shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train, it was eclipsed by the release of the behemoth that was Michael’s Thriller two months later.
Dream Street Released 1984 Label A&M Chart Positions US No.147 UK –
Not too dissimilar from the framework of her debut, Dream Street’s bid for crossover appeal, which trades the R&B foundations of its predecessor for a broader pop sound, comes across as contrived.
Boasting a mixed bag of collaborators including Janet’s brother Marlon, Giorgio Moroder and even Cliff Richard (yes, really), Dream Street suffers from a lack of direction.
As was the case with her debut, Janet’s role began and ended with contributing vocals, with her recording sessions scheduled around her role in the Fame TV series.
Highlights are scarce though the Moroder-produced title track and the Marlon Jackson-navigated Don’t Stand Another Chance at least hint at the potential of what was to come.
Fast Girls desperately wants to sound like Prince protégés Vanity 6 (it fails), while Pretty Boy, although equally unremarkable, is significant in the big picture as it is written and produced by The Time’s Jesse Johnson.
Faring significantly worse than Janet’s debut, Dream Street’s failure marked a significant turning point in that it prompted the realisation that if Janet was to pursue music seriously, it would have to be on her own terms and she would have to make some significant changes – however difficult that would be.
Control Released 1986 Label A&M Chart Positions US No.1 UK No.8
As statements of independence go, few are as direct as the title track of Control. Although her third album, it serves as the world’s real introduction to Janet, given it truly was the record on which she found her voice.
After two unsuccessful albums which bore just her name and vocals, Janet took hold of the reins of her career by firing her father as manager. She then sought the guidance of A&M’s John McClain, who teamed her with former Prince cohorts Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.
The failure of her previous album, Dream Street, had coincided with a turbulent time in Janet’s personal life, during which she had eloped with James DeBarge – singer with rival family group DeBarge – only to discover his voracious drug habit. Realising her mistake, she swiftly annulled the marriage and returned to the sheltered security of the Jackson estate.
Unfulfilled in life and in her career, Janet reluctantly agreed to a temporary make-or-break move to Minneapolis to record her next album after Jam & Lewis refused to work in California.
Holed up in the production duo’s Flyte Tyme Studios, Janet, Jimmy and Terry quickly established a bond which transformed the trajectories of their careers, cultivating a unique sound which comprised rap, R&B, funk and pop (later termed New Jack Swing) and utilised cutting-edge technology to create an innovative art of noise. Teaming their ground-breaking sonics with Janet’s declarations of independence, control and respect, Control was undeniably a landmark record.
Now 36 years later, it manages to sound gloriously retro and futuristic concurrently. The crunching beats and percussive tics of Nasty berate the guys that had tried to intimidate her in Minneapolis, while the irresistibly funky What Have You Done For Me Lately updates Aretha’s demand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
When I Think Of You, with its euphoric stabs of brass capturing the giddy heights of love, the chaotic euphoria of The Pleasure Principle and tender ballad Let’s Wait Awhile maintain a standard so high that seven of the album’s nine tracks justifiably went on to become hit singles.
Self-assured, sassy and streetwise, Control sold over 10 million copies worldwide.
Read our feature on the making of Control here.
Rhythm Nation 1814 Released 1989 Label A&M Chart Positions US No.1 UK No.4
As is always the case when something becomes popular, pressure mounts to replicate that success and with Control’s impressive stats, A&M had a strong case for wanting Janet to continue in the same milieu for its follow-up.
However, feeling she had covered those themes, Janet eschewed their instructions for a carbon copy sequel and instead chose to tackle more expansive issues.
Inspired by channel surfing during studio downtime and feeling deflated by the constant stream of negativity in the news (sound familiar?), Janet, Jimmy and Terry came up with the concept of a modern-day take on the social commentary of Marvin Gaye’s soul classic What’s Going On.
Prompting unification through music, Janet created a movement with a manifesto to highlight the world’s ills – including racism, poverty, illiteracy and prejudice. The album was conceived as an immersive experience rather than a straightforward collection of tracks, beginning with a pledge and featuring between-song interludes to weave the material together.
Opening with a suite of songs that brought a strong socially conscious message – the Sly & The Family Stone-sampling title track, the slick swingbeat of State Of The World and sparse, industrial feel of The Knowledge, the mood of the album switches up with an interlude asking, “Get the point? Good, let’s dance!”, before giving way to a string of punchy dance tracks – all of which added to Janet’s impressive tally of US Top 5 hits, Miss You Much, Escapade and Alright, yearning ballad Come Back To Me, and the hard rock of Black Cat.
Although Rhythm Nation is deeply entrenched in its harsh black and white imagery and the iconic video for the title track, featuring Janet and her troupe of dancers delivering ground-breaking choreography in black military-inspired jumpsuits and baseball caps, as a body of work, the album’s severity is countered by many lighter moments. The highlight of which is the sparkling sensuality of Love Will Never Do (Without You), a seductive delight that served as the perfect teaser for where Janet headed next.
janet. Released 1993 Label Virgin Chart Positions US No.1 UK No.1
A lot had changed in the four years since Janet’s previous studio album. She had signed a deal with Virgin worth an estimated $40 million, making her the highest paid artist in the world, scored one of her biggest hits with The Best Things In Life Are Free with Luther Vandross, and shot her debut film, gritty romantic drama Poetic Justice.
Unbeknownst to the world at the time, she had also married her boyfriend, René Elizondo Jr. The combination of the latter two ignited the confidence and sexual liberty that informs 1993’s janet.
The laidback groove of That’s The Way Love Goes, which effortlessly eased Janet back into the spotlight after a lengthy break, was the perfect reintroduction, topping the US chart for eight weeks.
Elsewhere, the album draws from a diverse range of influences with alt-rock (What’ll I Do) nestling comfortably next to operatic melodrama (This Time). You Want This and Because Of Love are both hip-hop-flavoured dance tracks, Throb is a pulsating house anthem and ballads Where Are You Now and Again are beautiful in their simplicity – the latter of which earned Janet an Oscar nomination due to its inclusion in Poetic Justice.
Rhythm Nation’s social commentary is revisited briefly on New Agenda, which includes a rap from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, while the sensual The Body That Loves You and Any Time, Any Place are tailor-made for Janet’s fans who had confessed to playing her music while having sex, leading her to dub them her “baby-making songs”. Hidden track, Whoops Now, a Motown-flavoured breezy effort was one the album’s biggest hits in the UK, while the high-octane sexplicit masterpiece If provides the album’s highlight.
Janet’s newfound confidence and sexual liberation were reflected in the album’s artwork, particularly the cover, shot by Patrick Demarchelier. Deemed too risqué by the record label, who cropped the image to focus solely on her face, the full-length version, featuring a topless Jackson gazing confidently while a pair of male hands (later revealed to be her husband René’s) cup her bare breasts, became one of the most iconic pop images of the decade.
The Velvet Rope Released 1997 Label Virgin Chart Positions US No.1 UK No.6
Having completed a hugely successful tour, renegotiated her record contract to $80 million, establishing her again as the highest paid artist in music history (at the time), and released her first greatest hits compilation, Design Of A Decade, Janet should have been feeling on top of the world.
In fact, she’d hit rock bottom, suffering what she later realised was an emotional breakdown.
Backstage on the tour, the singer was unable to emerge from deep sadness and depression. Despite her status as one of the world’s leading sex symbols, she was plagued by body dysmorphia.
Rather than enjoying her wealth and success, she constantly felt worthless and inadequate, prompting psychotherapy that delved as far back as childhood to come to terms with her feelings. Understanding that other people must be sharing her insecurities, Janet poured her findings into her most personal LP.
Encompassing hip-hop, R&B, jazz, trip-hop, dance and electro, The Velvet Rope covers a myriad of subjects from the scathing self-analysis of You, the self-affirming Special and vitriolic What About, which tackles the horrors of domestic violence while Empty predicts the hollowness of social media. Go Deep, despite the title, has nothing to do with therapy, and is the album’s most feelgood moment along with Together Again, an uplifting homage to Janet’s friends lost to AIDS.
Sexuality is also a central theme of much of the record, be it subtle (a cover of Rod Stewart’s Tonight’s The Night maintains the gender of the original and is sung to a woman), blatant (Rope Burn which is an ode to sado-masochism) or righteous (Free Xone denounces homophobia). Other high points include the sleek Joni Mitchell-sampling Got ‘Til It’s Gone, the synth-infused swingbeat of the title track and sublime R&B balladry of I Get Lonely.
Although it didn’t sell as well as its predecessors – though eight million copies is an impressive result – The Velvet Rope is in many respects Janet’s masterpiece and its influence on sub-genres including neo-soul and alt-R&B is undeniable.
All For You Released 2001 Label Virgin Chart Positions US No.1 UK No.2
Having offloaded some emotional baggage on The Velvet Rope and divorced her secret husband of nine years, René, the new millennium saw Janet in a positive frame of mind. She was excited to be single and dating for the first time, something she wanted to reflect in the fun, carefree stylings of 2001’s All For You.
This forward-looking optimism informs a suite of feelgood songs which are the beating heart of the album, including the title track, America-sampling Someone To Call My Lover, house-inflected Come On Get Up and Doesn’t Really Matter.
Things take a darker turn and deceit and betrayal are explored on the synthesised swagger of You Ain’t Right, the vitriolic Son Of A Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You), the sublime rocky, hip-hopera Trust A Try, before the mellow drum’n’bass of Better Days concludes the album on an optimistic note.
While All For You is a solid collection, it’s let down by the inclusion of too many bland boudoir ballads and the between-song interludes that enhanced previous records are now rather detrimental to the overal effect.
Nevertheless, despite competition from a generation of artists who followed in her footsteps, Ms Jackson reigned supreme scoring her highest first-week sales and fifth consecutive US No.1 studio album.
Damita Jo Released 2004 Label Virgin Chart Positions US No.2 UK No.32
In a parallel universe, Janet’s 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show went according to plan: the wardrobe malfunction didn’t happen and her performance proved to be the meticulously choreographed launch for Damita Jo that it was always meant to be, and the singer’s eighth album went on to achieve the success it deserved.
Of course, we all know that’s not what happened. The ridiculous overreaction to a flash of nipple saw Janet blacklisted by America’s major media organisations, thus derailing her career.
The fact that Justin Timberlake was held totally unaccountable for his part and saw his career flourish, highlighted America’s inherent sexism and racism with Janet solely suffering a backlash which has only dissipated in the last few years.
Released eight weeks after the Super Bowl debacle and unfairly eclipsed upon release, Damita Jo, when judged entirely on merit, is a diverse collection of songs, some of which rank among Janet’s best.
The horn-filled hip-hop of the title track and Strawberry Bounce explain Janet’s adoption of different personas in order to feel more liberated (a concept later explored by Beyoncé with her I Am… Sasha Fierce album).
The acoustic-flavoured hip-hop of My Baby (featuring relative newcomer Kanye West) is charming, as is Thinking ‘Bout My Ex which contains all the hallmarks of Babyface’s classic R&B. Meanwhile, the lilting ballad Spending Time With You seguing into the Cathy Dennis co-write Island Life transports you to tropical climes.
Elsewhere, All Nite (Don’t Stop), with its irresistible hook, is a scorching companion to Throb from 1993’s janet., R&B Junkie is a fun throwback to the 80s, while I Want You takes us back even further with its lush production that pastiches classic 60s soul. Just A Little While, a new wave-flavoured song with a nod to Prince makes a cute album track but remains a baffling choice for Damita Jo’s lead single.
Washed away in a tsunami of controversy, Damita Jo marked the beginning of a decline in sales for Janet and was her first studio album since Dream Street to miss the top spot in the US albums chart. Underrated and unfairly maligned, it is nevertheless a worthy addition to her canon which houses more than a few hidden gems.
20 y.o. Released 2006 Label Virgin Chart Positions US No.2 UK No.63
The danger of using a landmark album from your back catalogue to hype up the release of your new record is that as well as creating a buzz, you also risk the danger of sparking expectations that are almost impossible to live up to.
Therein lies the main problem with 20 Y.O. Titled as a reference to the two-decade time-lapse since the release of Control, the record was teased as a sequel of sorts to Janet’s classic LP, and on that premise, 20 Y.O. (20 Years Old) falls way short, mainly due to a disparity of the styles on offer.
Hip-hop beats, 80s synths and an abundance of samples permeate much of the first half of the LP with Do It 2 Me and the Herbie Hancock-sampling So Excited (the album’s second single) proving the strongest.
However, the quality control takes a substantial leap towards the end when Janet reunites with Jam & Lewis for standouts Daybreak (which recaptures the breezy joy of Escapade) and the laidback groove of Enjoy, while the sensual Take Care and Love 2 Love are her “baby-making songs” done right.
Unfortunately, a duet with Nelly, Call On Me, a weak retread of the rapper’s Kelly Rowland collab Dilemma, was released as the album’s lead single. That decision, along with the continued fallout from the Super Bowl, saw the LP underperform, spelling the end of her 13-year tenure at Virgin.
Discipline Released 2008 Label Island Chart Positions US No.1 UK No.63
Having signed to Island Records, Janet chose to revamp her sound, embarking on a project without Jam & Lewis for the first time since 1984’s Dream Street. Without a single writing credit on the album from Janet, Discipline was also the least involved she had been on any of her later records.
As is the case with her first two albums, Janet’s lack of involvement results in a collection that falls short on personality and could be anyone thanks to its manipulated vocals on many of the tracks.
Her weakest collection since her breakthrough, Discipline does, however, have a few redeeming qualities. Lead single Feedback evokes Blackout-era Britney, while the sensual house of Rock With U and electro-infused R&B of 2Nite and Luv both make for highlights.
Despite becoming her sixth No.1 album in the US, Discipline’s sales continued a decline for Janet. After the LP failed to produce any follow-up hits to Feedback, the campaign was shelved, prompting Janet and Island to agree to terminate their contract.
Unbreakable Released 2015 Label Rhythm Nation Chart Positions US No.1 UK No.11
With countless false starts and abandoned album recording sessions rumoured in the seven years since her previous release, not to mention an apparent focus on acting projects, fans had all but given up on the prospect of a new studio album from Janet. Though she had nothing to prove at this point, 2015’s Unbreakable, far exceeded expectations.
Her best album since The Velvet Rope, Unbreakable recreates the undeniable chemistry and magic conjured up by the dream team of Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Highlights include dancefloor anthems Burnitup! and Night, the sensuous R&B of No Sleeep, retro-inspired hip-pop via Dammn Baby and anthemic power ballad Well Traveled. Also impressive was the slick synth-pop of The Great Forever and the emotional Shoulda Known Better.
Landing her back at the top of the US album charts and greeted with a critical reception which finally gave her work its long overdue credit, Unbreakable is a triumph on all counts.