With the success of Unbreakable Janet Jackson has achieved something she’s struggled to do since her half-time show at the Super Bowl in 2004 – get talked about for something other than the accidental exposure of her nipple during that performance.
It’s exciting to see Jackson getting the acclaim she rightly deserves but those of us who’ve remained faithful to her despite, or perhaps because of, her reduced fortunes have a secret. Unbreakable is a great album, but it’s no better or worse than any of the other albums that were largely ignored in the wake of 2004. One of the hallmarks of Janet’s career is the Grade A consistency of her work ever since she took Control of her career in 1986. Unbreakable is just the continuation of her success, not a comeback.
But Jackson’s sales numbers and chart success (especially in terms of singles) indicate that a sizable portion of the audience abandoned her in 2004. If Unbreakable has you buying a Jackson album for the first time since 2001’s All For You then here’s what you missed and why you need to fill in those gaps.
DAMITA JO (2004)
As the first album after the Super Bowl, Damita Jo was doomed but it’s a case of Jackson being tripped rather than stumbling. The pearl-clutching that followed Nipplegate saw several major US media chains – including CBS, Viacom, Clear Channel and Infinity – blacklisting her. As a result Damita Jo produced no Top 40 singles on the US Hot 100, the first Jackson album to do that since 1984’s Dream Street.
To her credit Jackson likely foresaw that moral backlash and could have censored herself sexually. Instead Damita Jo is another confident step in the erotic revolution that began in earnest with Velvet Rope. In Strawberry Bounce she’s claiming “The way I work it gonna keep you cumin’”. Sexhibition is a hands on hips refusal to be ashamed of her sexual desire, especially the end where she speaks directly to the pearl-clutchers – “Relax, it’s just sex”. And there’s a song called Moist. Moist!
Why You Should Buy It – The upbeat first single Just a Little While; the funktastic All Nite (Don’t Stop); the thoughtful apology ballad Thinking ‘Bout My Ex; Slolove, an airy dance track that coulda/shoulda been a single and woulda been a major hit if released on an earlier album.
Standout Track – The second single, Motown homage I Want You. Perhaps the cruellest part of the Jackson blacklisting is that it prevented this mid-tempo ballad from becoming a smash. Its lilting doo-wop is so infectious it could cause a CDC alert. The slice-of-urban-life video for the song (it’s on that link), where Janet wanders a New Yorkesque neighborhood on the way to meet her boyfriend, is a one of her best.
20 Y.O. (2006)
The title to 20 Y.O. refers to the two decades that had passed since the release of Jackson’s seminal Control. In any ranking of Jackson’s albums, for those who need to turn this into a contest, this would struggle against some of her higher profile projects. It does much the same things Janet did on earlier albums, as the name suggests it was meant to at least homage the past, but that’s part of the problem. Yet like a favorite meal, although there aren’t surprises it’s still immensely satisfying.
Why You Should Buy It – Although it contains some of the weakest single releases in Jackson’s career, those singles – Call On Me featuring Nelly which put her back in the Top 40; So Excited and With U – still make for great listening. The real gold in 20 Y.O. is in the tracks that weren’t chosen as singles. For example Do It To Me samples Brenda Russell’s If Only For One Night, employing the original as a killer hook. Take Care is a classic atmospheric Janet love song, but this time its self love – with her lover away a horny Janet will “lay here and take care of it”. With U is said to call back to Control’s Let’s Wait Awhile but Take Care is the most reminiscent of the past, infused with the DNA of almost every Janet slow jam.
Standout Track – Enjoy was released as a single in Japan but should have been a worldwide smash. “I just enjoy and celebrate.” sings Janet in the chorus. “Enjoy the love we make. Enjoy, appreciate.” With a strong bass line and optimistic production this is the perfect gentle pick-me-up that could pull you out of any funk. Of all Jackson’s songs this piece of sunshine may be the most criminally underappreciated. It’s hard to find a decent linkable video but trust me, you want to hear this song.
Both the title and cover to Discipline evoke BDSM, as does the video for the first single Feedback, where Jackson’s back up dancers are dressed in full body black rubber with gimp masks. Nipplegate cast a long shadow and it’s easy to think the in-your-face sexuality on display here is Janet showing frustration with others refusing to move on. It’s almost a challenge – you think I’m about nothing but sex, well even if that’s true so the fuck what?
Why You Should Buy It – That confidently sexy opening single gave Janet her first top 20 hit in 7 years (Feedback reached #19). The second release Rock With U missed the Hot 100 completely but it’s as infectious a dance track as any from her 1980s and 1990s albums. The album ends with Curtains, a Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins produced track that will leave you wishing the record wasn’t over.
Standout Track – Never Letchu Go. Janet has recorded many, many lovely ballads but this lesser known track could compete with the best. It feels like a lost track from Rhythm Nation or janet, a breathless declaration of love that is both romantic and realistic. As far as love songs go, this one understands relationships perfectly. “So if something is broke. Let me go and fix it. And if something is lost. Let me go and get it.”
NUMBER ONES/THE BEST (2009)
At this point in Janet’s career it’s easy to see why she chose to follow up her 1996 Design of a Decade collection with this round-up and while the compilation could have used a few more alternate takes on tracks, and more than one new track.
Why You Should Buy It – Number Ones is fairly comprehensive collection of Janet’s singles from Control onwards with that one new track, Make Me. It includes Diamonds (the 1987 Herb Alpert track she provided vocals for) and her duet with Luther Vandross, The Best Things In Life Are Free, the latter had appeared on Design, but only on the international edition. Both of those are dreaded ALBUM ONLY songs, however, as is the worthy remix of Make Me. But if you don’t own any of those it’s your choice as to whether they’re worth the price of purchasing a whole album. Heck, Diamonds alone is worth the cost of the album.
Standout Track – Make Me is a thumping dancefloor treat. While not a Top 40 hit it did go big on the dance charts which is understandable, the song literally urges you to jump up and boogie. Fortunately it’s downloadable separately. Your feet will thank you.
ICON: NUMBER ONES (2010)
The Icon series is Universal Music’s successor to the 20th Century Masters collections, effectively a reason to put out another greatest hits under the guise of serving up an artist’s signature tunes. This is a pared back version of the 2009 Number Ones and almost exclusively features songs you’ll already own.
Why You Should Buy It – For the cost (about half of the previous year’s Number Ones) the earlier release is actually better value. However, there is one song here you might have missed, Nothing from the soundtrack of Why Did I Get Married Too? Jackson starred in this Tyler Perry 2010 comedy and contributed this ballad to the soundtrack. You might be forced to buy Icon or that soundtrack to get this sweet song and in that case unless you’re gripped to own every single Jackson album you might want to buy the soundtrack – it’s worth the price of admission. Standout track is In the Middle of It All. If you’re not already an Irma Thomas fan you soon will be.
Standout Track – Nothing was apparently recorded in a hurry but it sounds anything but rushed. The song sees Janet asking for trust. Has there ever been a lyric more perfect for quelling an anxious lover than “You can have the password to my phone”? Being forced to buy a whole album is never satisfying but a track of this quality goes a long way to making up for that.