Damita Jo

As far as this CD is concerned, Janet Jackson's sin was not in exposing her breast during the Super Bowl. After all, the lady just wanted to show off a new piece of jewelry. The sin was in stripping down without titillating anyone. Overnight, she destroyed the highly sexualized persona she'd been cultivating for the last ten years and undermined Damita Jo, which is all about her sexuality — from the cover (which features her topless and airbrushed) to songs such as the orgasmic "Moist." Sample lyric: "Boy, you're about to make the rain come down."

Then there's "Warmth," which makes R. Kelly sound subtle. The audio equivalent of a Penthouse "Forum" letter, "Warmth" leaves nothing to the imagination. It begins with Jackson's "hands wrapped around, stroking" to a porno bass thump. "I feel you get erect," she sings, before cooing, "There's no place warmer than my mouth." And, finally, after nearly four minutes, she demands, "Now it's my turn."

Like the Super Bowl stunt, Damita Joe (titled after Jackson's middle name) smacks of trying too hard. It wants to be all things to all pop fans: There's some following in Beyoncé's footsteps, a little Jay-Z piggybacking, whiffs of classic Eighties Janet, teeny-bopper pop, a Nelly impression, old-school funk, push-button rock & roll, even a little country & western. And the spoken-word interludes — a staple of most of her albums — in which she talks intimately to the listener, as if answering interview questions, are just plain weird.

"When you look at me, do you want me just for what you see?" Jackson asks breathily in one such interlude. "Do you think I'm that person that you watch on TV?/There's another side that I don't hide, but may never show."

While wags may quip, "The left breast," the truth is that Jackson is just trying to humanize herself, as she did so well on her breakthrough 1986 album, Control. But here she succeeds only in sounding even more out of touch, exposing her so-called real self — her Damita Jo side — by talking about how she used to enjoy listening to music while doing her homework and likes to read a good book on the beach. Who cares? This is the twenty-first century, and celebrity gossip and diet plans are now hard news: If you're going to talk to us intimately on your CD, at least tell us about your divorce, your workout tips and what you were thinking on Super Bowl Sunday.

Instead, Damita Joe alternates between Jackson trying to play fantasy object and Everygirl, neither of which she really seems to be. Further evidence of the personality crisis comes from the production, which mixes the loyal architects of her sound — Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — with the producer of the moment, Kanye West. The net result is that Jackson just sounds self-conscious.

Jackson has had eighteen years of monster hits, so it's hard to fault her instincts. Even her last lackluster CD, 2001's All for You, sold better in its first week than her best albums have. But the tough-talking teenager of Control, the high-minded soldier of Rhythm Nation and even the comeback queen of The Velvet Rope are all gone now. If reduced to a quarter of its size (it's twenty-two tracks long), Damita Jo could be a great CD. The candy-coated, Jay-Z-sampling "Strawberry Bounce" is undeniable; on "I Want You," with help from West, she evokes the Motown dreams her siblings lived; and "Thinkin' Bout My Ex" is a classic Babyface ballad that would make any self-respecting boy band jealous. But there's too much of Jackson's moistness to wade through to get to Damita Jo's solid ground.

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