On their latest albums, two members of pop music’s first family move in markedly different directions. While Jermaine regresses toward unmitigated sap, Janet steps out and boldly states that she’s not the Jacksons’ baby sister anymore.
As usual, Jermaine’s is a case of wasted potential. The general consensus was that once he broke free of Motown, he would undergo some kind of creative metamorphosis and develop the writing and producing chops hinted at on isolated singles. Though he’s still got the voice for credible funk or meaty ballads, neither is supplied by his songwriting or Michael Omartian’s programmed production. The dance cuts have a format-friendly, artificial sheen, layered by obligatory Arthur Baker-like breaks that would have sounded fresh two years ago. The occasional bite in Jermaine’s voice is hardly enough to penetrate the slush.
Jermaine’s preference has shifted anyway, to maudlin ballads that point him more toward Johnny Mathis than Stevie Wonder. The most tolerable of these, “If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful,” was written by Elliot Willensky, who also penned one of brother Michael’s prepubescent pinnacles, “Got to Be There.” The appeal of the song is not Jermaine’s sobbing but the dulcet tones of Whitney Houston, whose presence assures the song plenty of radio time. It now seems unlikely that Jermaine will ever rise to the level of Prince, Michael and Stevie. Hit or no hit, Precious Moments leaves him stranded in double-A ball.
On the other hand, Janet’s Control is already a hit, but she sounds more concerned with identity than with playlists. For an entire side, she and ex-Time-members-turned-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis dispel the pop-ingénue image of her first two albums with some sharp-tongued, post-1999 metallic funk. On cuts such as “Nasty” and the single “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” Janet makes the message clear: She’s still basically a nice girl but ready to kick some butt if you try to put her on a pedestal.
Janet lightens up a bit on side two, reverting to more conventional teen concerns (“He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive”). The production becomes a bit less dense, and the songs expose her still-ripening voice a little more. But she’s clearly ready for graduation. Control is a better album than Diana Ross has made in five years and puts Janet in a position similar to the young Donna Summer’s — unwilling to accept novelty status and taking her own steps to rise above it.