In 1993 Janet Jackson was on her way to becoming the biggest pop star in the world. She inked a record $32 million deal with Virgin to release janet., her biggest commercial success. Critically, it is also her best album, winning Jackson her second Grammy for writing its monster hit “That’s the Way Love Goes.” She had a string of hit records from the album including the number 1 “Again,” which served as the them to her film debut, Poetic Justice, and earned Jackson an Oscar nomination.
What makes janet. the best album of Jackson’s career is that it truly pushed her artistic limits – she moved out of the radio-friendly dance-pop of her previous trend-setting albums Control (1986) and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), and embraced a far more diverse sound that expanded on her brand of urban dance music, that includes rap, rock, pop, jazz, club, even opera (the only thing missing was country – imagine Janet Jackson crooning with a steel pedal guitar).
I won’t include the many interludes that litter the album – this silly habit started with janet. and would be something that would plague Jackson’s subsequent albums.
“That’s the Way Love Goes” – This was the album’s first and biggest single. It was an excellent introduction to the “new Janet Jackson” a far sexier pop diva than the Jackson of the military-drag from her Rhythm Nation phase. Instead of featuring cold, military-precision percussion, the beats on this record are a lot gentler, with slinky, funky guitar being plucked and strummed. Jackson’s tiny voice sounds relaxed and sexy, purring in the sympathetic, luxurious production of pillowy synths, ambient hums, and wall-to-wall vocals (all done by Jackson).
“You Want This” – The record starts off with a sample from the Supremes “Love Child” before melding into a New Jack Swing number that boasts a busy, thick production that threatens to drown out Jackson’s coo. The lyrics continue with the singer’s assertive persona, schooling a wayward lover on how he has to “work it” to keep up with her. Even better is the music video version that includes a blustery cameo by 80s rap icon MC Lyte.
“If” – Jackson marries 90s disco with guitar-rock for this swirling epic number with a Hendrix-lite guitar, shrieking throughout the song. Jackson sings at a break-neck speed, practically rapping about the salacious pleasures of her lover – this is one of Jackson’s most explicit songs (at the time). Like “You Want This,” “If” steals an iconic hook off a Supremes record, this time the fantastic dance break in the middle of the song lifts off the string intro of “Someday We’ll Be Together.”
“This Time” – Again janet. swipes at another seemingly disparate genre – this time opera. Jackson teams up with diva Kathleen Battle who trills like a funky valkyrie. The song is a large-scale epic – the sonic equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille flick, with Jackson giving a sneering performance of a wronged woman, excoriating a scrub of a guy, before the gets lost in an orgy of dance beats and wordless vocalizing from Battle, and finally an indignant Jackson sniffing at the end of the song to the jerk, “you’ve been dismissed…”
“Throb” – Jackson plagiarises Madonna’s “Erotica,” and pretends she’s a club kid. The song is a minimalist dance ditty that highlight the talents of Jackson’s producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Jackson is merely a guest in the song, moaning and faking orgasms more than actually singing. Still, it’s a high spot on an album full of them.
“What’ll I Do” – Jackson moves from copying Madonna to doing a nifty Mick Jagger impression. The song is a good rocker, similar in vein to Jackson’s “Black Cat” from Rhythm Nation. While her severely limited voice, and oh-so-cutesy vocal won’t make Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde lose any sleep, it’s still a fun number and first-class filler.
“Funky Big Band” – On Jackson’s stab at jazz, the record threatens to implode due to the ambition of Jackson and company; the song is a loud and crazy mess with strange samples and noises, and (gasp) Jackson scatting. The song, a paen to the Lennox Lounge in Harlem, is an inventive number.
“New Agenda” – On “New Agenda” Jackson revisits the socially conscious of Rhythm Nation for this wonderful, indignant anthem to black womanhood. Paired with Chuck D from Run DMC, Jackson roars about sisterhood and the many hurts that black women have endured throughout history. I dare you to not jump up in a salute when Jackson declared, “African American woman – I stand tall with pride!”
“Again” – The first ballad on janet., this is a tear-stained piano ballad, that boasts a stately and classy performance by Jackson. The bruised lyrics tell the story of a lost love and regret; the orchestra is gorgeous with mournful strings and a poignant piano. The song actually benefits from Jackson’s quivering voice – she conveys the vulnerability and despair of the song – even though Whitney, Celine, and Mariah can hits notes Jackson can only hit in her imagination, she has proven herself an engaging performer.
“Where Are You Now” – Even though Jackson dedicated this mournful midtempo ballad to her dog, this is a mature dirge similar to “Again” in regretful tone. Removed from her usual dance beats and aggressive synths, Jackson manages to give a surprisingly soulful performance.
“The Body That Loves You” – The only song that comes close to a dud – a stopover to the more excellent “Any Time, Any Place,” this is another soft-core ditty that has Jackson play the role of seductress.
“Any Time, Any Place” – a huge hit when it came out, this is Jackson’s entry into “babymaking music” similar to the erotic songs of Barry White or the Isley Brothers. Jackson purrs out a sultry performance.
“Whoops Now” – For some reason this silly pop ditty is on a hidden track. It’s a fluffy number about Jackson going on holiday. Yup, that’s about it – she warbles about the places she’s visited with her chatty friends.
After janet., Jackson had a few more successful albums – The Velvet Rope (1997) and All for You (2001) – but her career ground to a halt after her disastrous performance at the 2004 Super Bowl, that climaxed with the singer accidentally flashing millions of viewers. Along with a snapshot of Jackson at her peak, janet. also is an indicator or relic of a long-gone music industry – the kind that would lavish millions to produce the extravagantly expensive albums like janet.