Twenty-five years ago, Janet Jackson released her fourth album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, which became a monster hit – one of the biggest-selling records of the late 80s, early 90s. It spun off a ridiculous seven top 5 hit singles (four of them went number 1). A loosely socially conscious concept record, the album further cemented Jackson’s status as a major hitmaker after her successful classic Control (1986).
While parts of the album have dated – the drum machines and synths thunder through the speakers – but it still shows off Jackson (and her crew of record producers, namely Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis) at her best. Because Jackson’s voice is tiny, tiny, thin, she’s an integral part of the music, but no the dominant factor.
Since 1989, Jackson released a series of albums including the phenomenally successful janet. (1993) and the critically-acclaimed The Velvet Rope (1997). Starting in 2003, though, Jackson’s career fortunes dropped furiously, and since 2001, she hasn’t had a top 10 pop hit. And listening to Rhythm Nation feels like you’re listening to a different artist.
While the socio-political lyrics are somewhat naive and generic, the dance songs are incredible, boasting some incredible production work. And though no one will confuse Jackson with Tracy Chapman, it’s still admirable that she chose to take on social ills (and set them to a disco beat). What’s interesting is that in 1989, Janet Jackson was 23 years old. Think about it: think about Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, and Jennifer Lopez – were they singing about prejudice, illiteracy, the War on Drugs?
Here is a track-by-track review of the album, with my takes on how the album works years later.
“Rhythm Nation” – the title track samples Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” hand is crammed full of clattering beats and pounding drum machines. Jackson’s minuscule vocals are layered a thousand times over trill over the industrial beats. The lyrics are optimistic and hopeful (“With music by our side/to break the color lines/let’s work together to improve our way of life”), but doesn’t delve too deeply into social privilege and context. Despite the so-so lyrics, the song doesn’t age badly and offers Jackson fantastic opportunities to perform wonderfully on stage. The Single ran up to number 2 on the pop charts, and the video was a black and white masterpiece (which won a Grammy).
“State of the World” – Jackson follows “Rhythm Nation” with ‘State of the World” which gets into the specifics on what’s wrong with the world. The stories include a prostitute who’s trying to raise a kid, and a homeless kid who endures bullying at school. Like “Rhythm Nation” the song is produced with a landscape of different electronic instruments, heavy bass, samples, and the overused drum machine. It’s not a catchy song (which is why it probably wasn’t a single in the U.S.), and Jackson strains to sell the serious lyrics of the song (it’s difficult to hear weighty themes sung by her airy wisp of a voice), but again, it’s an admirable effort.
“The Knowledge” – a good song, but Jackson’s input is the least impressive part of the tune. She speak-sings the lyrics which celebrate the importance of education. It’s a pretty minimalist kind of dance song, with tight-fist percussion, and pretty long instrumental break which makes for a great video (which it was), but for tiring listening.
“Miss You Much” – easily the best song on the record, and one of Jackson’s best songs. The First track not to be a serious song, it harks back to Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis’ Minneapolis background (it sounds like a great Prince cast-off). It’s also a contender for one of the greatest New Jack Swing songs ever. Because Jackson’s free from being somber and pondering, she actually comes off great here – her vocals are kicky and sassy, and she injects the kind of attitude and spunk that made a gajillion people buy Control. Like “Rhythm Nation,” “Miss You Much” made for a great music video, with Jackson and a pair of dancers doing a great dance routine with chairs and fedoras. The single sailed to number one, and is one of the pop diva’s biggest and most enduring hits.
“Love Will Never Do (Without You)” – originally intended as a duet with Prince, Jackson does double duty, singing in a rare lower register, before returning to her familiar high trill. The song is a midtempo dance number that again creates a thick, impenetrable wall of sound with Jackson’s harmonized vocals, layered again and again (she becomes an instrument). She also gets a moment to show off some of her underrapprecaited vocal chops by hitting a high note at the climax of the song (while impressive for Jackson, Mariah Carey won’t be losing any sleep). Interesting enough, because Jackson was such a huge star and because the album was selling so many copies, this single went to number one over a year after the album was released. The video was also a major milestone in Jackson’s career because it featured the singer cavorting on the beach wearing a revealing top, showing for the first time in her career that she was a smoldering sex symbol (it was also the first time she blatantly ripped off Madonna by copying her “Cherish” video).
“Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” – the last serious song on the album, this is a piano ballad about how rough the world was (and still is) for children. What’s chilling is that the song samples a TV news radio bulletin reporting a school shooting (though the sound effects of gun shots and kids screaming is a bit much). The song is still appropriate 25 years later (how tragic is that?). This song highlights just how influential Michael Jackson was to his sister’s career – her “save the children” plea recalls him at his most earnest, but there are also slight echoes of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
“Alright” – like “Miss You Much” this song is fantastic. An interesting take on swing music, but filtered through late 80s dance music. Jackson’s malleable voice is twisted, vamped, vocodered, and manipulated through a series of audio tics. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis prove their virtuoso talent in making state-of-the-art dance music. It’s shiny, polished and moves at a breezy clip, despite its long length (over six minutes). And the video is great, too – a MGM-inspired extravaganza with cameos by Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, and Cyd Charisse.
“Escapade” – another big hit, this is a fluffy pop number that is probably the least impressive song on the record. It’s a horribly dated affair with a thick production that feels suffocating. Too many synths and a ho-hum performance by Jackson (I hate it when she gets “whimsical”).
“Black Cat” – Jackson’s the sole songwriter on this rock-inspired dance-pop song. A rant at a ne’er-do-well boyfriend, this is actually a good song, even if it shouldn’t work – after all, Jackson’s airy croon shouldn’t work with roaring metal guitars. The chorus is insanely catchy and a neat combo of dance-pop and head-banging.
“Lonely” – This first song in a final suite of ballads, it’s pretty, torchy, and sexy. Though she’s not a great balladeer, it does work if she uses her vocal limitations to pant suggestively.
“Come Back to Me” – another huge pop hit, this is one of Jackson’s best ballad moments. She does bruised soul well, and her tiny voice can convey a heart-breaking vulnerability. The song is lavishly produced, stately and elegant with gorgeous strings and synths. Jackson’s performance is surprisingly soulful and proves that she doesn’t always need clipped, military-styled beats to succeed.
“Someday Is Tonight” – though janet. is supposedly Jackson’s sexual awakening, this song predicts the more sensual Janet Jackson. She doesn’t sing so much as she whispers through the verses before she melds into a gorgeous chorus that promises nookie. On Control, Jackson suggested that she and her lover should just “Let’s Wait Awhile Longer.” But as a companion piece, this song is great – a worthy sequel, with a scorching cameo by A&M founder/trumpeter Herb Alpert.
An appreciation of Rhythm Nation wouldn’t be complete without the music videos. Along side the Rhythm Nation Compilation, there’s a short film, shot in arty black & white, that works alongside Jackson’s interest in social justice with a plot dealing with gangs and homeless kids.