As princess of America’s black royal family, everything Janet Jackson does is important. Whether proclaiming herself in charge of her life, as she did on Control (1986), or commander in chief of a rhythm army dancing to fight society’s problems (Rhythm Nation 1814, from 1989), she’s influential. And when she announces her sexual maturity, as she does on her new album, Janet., it’s a cultural moment. Start the clock: Janet Jackson, who suggested, “Let’s Wait Awhile,” and cooed, “Someday Is Tonight,” has been to the mountaintop and is ready for mo’!
Where “Someday Is Tonight” — the nervous breathiness of a virgin about to take the plunge — left off, Janet. picks up: in postorgasmic bliss. From the warm bed of soul sounds backing “That’s the Way Love Goes” to the “Come for me!” command that kicks off “Throb” to the love-filled exhibitionism of “Any Time, Any Place,” Janet. declares this woman ready to love and make love — and fuck.
Underrated but never under-bought, Jackson’s MTV-friendly image and in-concert lip-syncing have earned her more undeserved blows than Robin Givens. Janet.‘s complex sexual and diverse musical statements should win her critical respect along with pleasing her octillion fans. Janet.‘s Janet is a more complete sexual being than most of pop’s black women are allowed or allow themselves to be. No Hottentot Venus (an objectified, sexually available black female) exploiting her legs (Tina Turner), hair (Neneh Cherry) or blackness (black drag queen Madonna), Jackson evades reductive sexuality by demanding love and respect from both her partner and herself. She wants you to touch her, and love’s got to do with it because “that’s the way love goes.” Janet won’t stand for a trade-off — she wants love and sex.
Dignity firmly in pocket, Jackson is ready to try anything. You can view her various styles as a plethora of different positions. Janet. touches R&B, hip-hop, soul, funk, rock, house, jazz and opera with the singer’s pop sensibility. The mix may lack purity, but the ambitious choices and flexibility leave a bold impression.
Bold indeed are the juxtapositions of Jackson with opera star Kathleen Battle and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Battle’s voice soars and sounds like an instrument imitating the human voice on “This Time,” while “New Agenda” finds Jackson gliding over hip-hop-inspired beats as Chuck bursts through. The lyrics of “Agenda” follow that same pattern: It fits a Jackson to write a song demanding a new program and leave the rapper to propose the plan.
On Control and Rhythm Nation, Jackson’s collaborators, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, were hotter than a flame’s bright yellow center. Those albums are exemplary late-Eighties state-of-the-art R&B. But the Jam and Lewis fire no longer cracks and roars as it once did. Predictably, Janet shares the bill this time as coproducer, resulting in a less groundbreaking sound but a wider-ranging album.
The seventy-five minutes of Janet. are less long than long overdue. A significant, even revolutionary transition in the sexual history and popular iconography of black women — who have historically needed to do nothing to be considered overtly sexual — is struck as the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? girl declares herself the what-I’ll-do-to-you-baby! woman. The princess of America’s black royal family has announced herself sexually mature and surrendered none of her crown’s luster in the process. Black women and their friends, lovers and children have a victory in Janet.