The marketplace has been both artistic boot camp and therapist's couch for Janet Jackson; at the core of her bond with her audience is the fact that it has paid for the privilege to watch her come into her own. It is simulated intimacy — but what other kind is there when the object of worship is a pure pop product? The 77-minute Velvet Rope is part of a continuum, building from the self-empowering manifesto Control, the skin-deep social consciousness of Rhythm Nation and the hypersexual make-over of Janet.
The thesis this time is that we should all jump over the internal barriers (i.e., the velvet ropes) that we put up in order to protect our hearts and that cause us to put forth fictitious selves. As you might guess from such a premise, there's plenty of emotional navel gazing here, but there are also moments of unsullied pop bliss. The bass-heavy house track "Together Again" showcases a poignant lead vocal, giving off a '60s soul/girl group vibe. The drum-and-bass lite of "Empty" has Jackson's delivery racing in a staccato line that's mapped out by edgy rhythms. And the album's best song, the anti-homophobia track "Free Xone," shifts moods and tempos on a dime, segueing from a Prince-like jam to a masterful sample from Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up."
There's also some provocative fare. On "What About," Jackson sings of a walk on the beach during which her guy pledges lifelong devotion. But as he does so, we're plunged into the scalding rock blast taking place inside her head as she asks, "What about the times you hit my face?../What about the times you said you didn't fuck her; she only gave you head?" For all that, though, it's Jackson's flirtation with lesbianism that's bound to raise eyebrows: On "Speaker Phone," it sounds like she's masturbating while talking to a female friend; on her cover of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," Jackson offers to undo some girl's pretty French gown.
Unfortunately, Rope's second half is weighed down by sappy ballads. It reaches its nadir on the galling poor-little-rich-girl interlude "Sad." "There's nothing more depressing," intones a sober Jackson, "than having everything and still feeling sad." Pared down, The Velvet Rope would have brushed up against brilliance. Still, it's a testimonial to the record's merits that it's ultimately stronger than Jackson's sense of self-importance.