Both Janet Jackson and her older brother Michael started out as cuddly child stars and then retreated into more-remote personas. But while Michael has nearly vanished into a sexually ambivalent neverland, Janet has made the attainment of a high-gloss, sexually charged “normalcy” her personal and professional project. Over the years, the military-style beats and dance moves of Control (1986) and Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) slowly yielded to the teasing seductions of Janet. (1993) and The Velvet Rope (1997).
Now, on All for You, Jackson cranks the heat higher still. She’s newly single, and as song after song – not to mention the cover photo, in which she lies nude in bed, covered only by a sheet – declares, she’s gotta have it. The dreamy ballad “Would You Mind” drifts into a soft-core fantasy: “I’m gonna kiss you/Suck you/Taste you,” a moaning, “all juicy” Jackson promises, as she instructs her lover, “Oh, yeah, baby, just like that.” Another ballad, “Love Scene (Ooh Baby),” is a rhapsody to “when you’re fucking me.”
But if Jackson tries too hard to meet a standard of sexual frankness that’s heightened in the four years since her last outing, she more than delivers her quota of hits. The title track swirls on the dizzying energy of a disco-era sample (“The Glow of Love,” by Change), and the ballad “Better Days” ends the album on an irresistible note of uplift. And as she did with Joni Mitchell on The Velvet Rope, Jackson calls on a guest, Carly Simon, to reprise one of her signature hits. In this case, “You’re So Vain” becomes “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song is About You),” and amid its esteem-bolstering proclamations of sisterhood, the track breaks the news that Simon’s original was not about Mick Jagger, as was widely rumored.
At thirty-five, Jackson is now an R&B veteran, and she’s earned her stature not through innovation but through consistency. Each time out, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (with occasional help here from hip-hop producer Rockwilder) freshen up her sound just enough to make it current while honoring her roots in one of the first families of soul. All for You admittedly does not break much new ground, but it’s just as fresh, familiar and appealing as you’ve come to expect from Jackson, and that’s no small achievement.