My Music Faves – Damita Jo – Janet Jackson

Posted on November 19, 2019

Reviewed: Damita Jo by Janet Jackson (2006)

I almost don’t want to review this album after revisiting this revisitation by Pitchfork from earlier this year. It’s a spot-on analysis from a relatively objective source instead of a ravenous fan.

https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/janet-jackson-damita-jo/

Shoving that thoughtful review at you absolves me of all the meta-analysis. I guess.

For my part, I think Damita Jo is a fantastic and unique record for Janet. It was the beginning of a three-album arc away from Jimmy & Terry, and while the other two records yielded decidedly mixed results, Damita Jo clearly benefits from the creative new blood. Dallas Austin, Scott Storch, Kanye West, and others pitched in to push Janet into new sonic territory. Jam & Lewis were never far, collaborating on most but not all of the tracks.

Thematically, Janet meditates on the universality of love, a clear riff on the theme of The Velvet Rope, which was about acceptance. The theory is that all of us, but Janet in particular, cultivate different personas; these personas all take different tacks toward looking for that love (and, not incidentally, sex). Janet introduces us to Damita Jo and Strawberry, two of her shadow alter egos, in the early songs, but then allows us to infer what parts of her personality are at play as she lounges in the Caribbean, steams up the dance floor, and graphically narrates her amorous adventures throughout the rest of the record.

The music sounds different. But the tone is also new. Her five blockbuster albums from Control to All For You were diligently on the move at all times, from the fast side to the slow side, from the chorus to the bridge, from one mood to another, often with explicit directions included (“Get the point? Good, let’s dance.”) Janet got shit done on her records.

On Damita Jo, for the first time, Janet is unapologetically self-indulgent. It’s a post-IDGAF world for Janet. The new Janet/Damita Jo/Strawberry combo lingers and luxuriates. She performs two entire songs about highly specific sex acts. She gives a monologue about how much she loves dusk. She hammers home the same looping refrain on “All Nite (Don’t Stop).” And so on. After nearly two decades of trying to impress everyone, it seems to click for her that she’s an established artist who can actually meditate and fixate, and not worry who sees her staring.

There’s too many highlights to mention, so I’ll limit my mentions to a top two and a bottom two. “Strawberry Bounce” is a sneaky earworm that gets better with each repeat. “Truly” is a sparse, gorgeous Michael-esque performance filled out with Janet-esque harmonies. And at least five other tracks are as good as those two.

On the other end of the spectrum, “Thinkin’ Bout My Ex” just sounds like Janet checking Babyface off her bucket list rather than an inspired collaboration. It’s also a very safe arrangement on an otherwise adventurous record.

It’s followed by “Warmth,” one of the two sex songs mentioned above. It’s the only meditation of the bunch that stalls a bit too long on its fixation. Once you get over the oh-my-god-she’s-singing-about-THAT moment, there’s not a lot else going on sonically.

Of course, any review of Damita Jo has the duty to mention that its success was artificially stunted by the post-Super Bowl blacklisting and backlash. I won’t carry on about what could have been. Instead, I’ll mention what actually was–a fully realized Janet, comfortable on record as never before, having fun and taking names.

My Music Faves – 20 Y.O. – Janet Jackson

Reviewed: 20 Y.O. by Janet Jackson (2006)

“There’s something to be said for not saying anything.”

OK, Jan, if you say so.

This was the inauspicious opening of 20 Y.O., Janet’s comeback punch after the uppercut she was dealt with the media blackout around her prior release Damita Jo.

Janet could be forgiven for wanting a little escapism after the bullying and shaming of 2004, but deconstructing the foundation of her record-making ethos might not have been the right ticket. A Janet record needs a reason for being, a central organizing theme that tells you where Janet is in her life at the moment. 20 Y.O. found Janet rationalizing why she didn’t want to talk about it, any of it.

The thematic confusion doesn’t stop there. Ostensibly a celebration of the 20 years since her emergence as an independent and successful musical artist, the record failed to connect that theme in any meaningful way to the tracks. The interludes find Jan reminiscing with friends and reflecting on her career in a carefree, non-reflective manner. But the tracks themselves don’t carry the theme. They simply show up between the interludes.

OK, now with all the griping out of the way, it’s time to unearth the biggest secret about this much-maligned entry in Janet’s discography–this album JAMS. And to be fair, that is all Janet seems to be concerned with in the first place.

The energy in the opening tracks leaps from the speakers and drags the listener onto the steamiest corner of the dance floor. Jermaine Dupri was near the top of his game at this time, only one year removed from his astounding work on Mariah Carey’s comeback record The Emancipation of Mimi.

Of course, the hope was that he could accomplish the same feat with his then-girlfriend. A more forgiving media might have allowed it to happen, because these tracks are good enough. I mean, they’re not “We Belong Together,” but they’re pretty darn good. All six of the opening tracks, from the Herbie Hancock-sample assisted “So Excited” to the chopped, screwed, and rocked-out “This Body,” show Janet in fine form, affecting her vocals to match each distinctive mood as the tracks melt into each other on the record’s first half.

The record briefly bobbles midway through. “With U” is the only partial misstep on the album. It probably felt like a special moment between JD and JJ in the studio, but it comes across a bit formulaic on record. It’s a pretty song, just not a sonic zinger in the Janet tradition. The bright first single “Call On Me” quickly picks up the slack afterward. It’s largely been forgotten that this was a huge R&B hit in 2006, although even many Janet fans felt like she was resorting to uncharacteristic mainstream concessions, namely a duet with Nelly and an extravagant Hype Williams music video production.

Jermaine Dupri suffered much unfair criticism and grief from Janet’s fans over his work on this record. He did a wonderful job. Unfortunately, Janet’s musical soul mates Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis decided to produce a few tracks for good measure. The results are four should-be-legendary tracks that end the record and almost close the loop on the 20 Y.O. theme.

The Jam & Lewis tracks evoke the magic of the two decades of their work together in a vivid way. “Daybreak” is a teeny bop delight. “Take Care” is “Come Back to Me” on vitamin E, all dramatic crescendos and clever vocal arrangements. “Love 2 Love” is a Prince-forward falsetto-fest and one of the more dynamic vocal performances of Janet’s career.

But the best of all is “Enjoy,” which gets my vote as Janet’s finest song–ever. On a different record, at a different time, this could have been a huge hit. It’s a meditation on living life to its fullest, but also comes across as diligent and melancholy. The joy on the record is palpable, but there’s also a sense that it’s well-earned and thoughtfully considered. A complex and layered song, it’s almost too fine a composition for this otherwise carefree, say-nothing record.

My Music Faves – Discipline – Janet Jackson

Reviewed: Discipline by Janet Jackson (2008)

Discipline was a necessary evil. It was an other-side-of-the-mirror exercise, with an unintentional premise. What if Janet had played by the rules and allowed herself to be carried by superstar writers and producers instead of staking out her own identity?

In that respect, Discipline is a clear throwback to her pre-Control work. Both her eponymous debut and the somewhat dismal Dream Street consisted of queues of star producers, all lined up for a go at the production slingshot that would catapult Janet to stardom. Notably, the then-red-hot Giorgio Moroder (of Donna Summer and Flashdance fame) produced some real duds on the latter album.

This time around in 2008, a quarter-century later, Def Jam Records again hatched the “brilliant” idea of lining up all the hottest producers to bring Janet back to the effortless commercial viability of 1986 to 2001, during Janet’s unprecedented chart run across five multi-platinum albums.

The production and writing heft was considerable and exciting. Stargate! The-Dream! Rodney Jerkins! Jermaine Dupri! Ne-Yo! Babyface!

Listening to the sheer pop, dance, and R&B-ish craftsmanship of the tracks on Discipline, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were successful. The hooks are solid and the production glistens across the record.

Problem is, they forgot to bring Janet along. Much as with her first two albums, the producers and writers seem so absorbed with crafting hits that they did not properly pause to consider whose name was on the wrapper.

Granted, Janet didn’t give them the most material to work with. As the story goes, Janet wanted to go on tour to support 20 Y.O., her 2006 effort and first attempt to rebound from the PR debacle that was Super Bowl 38 (sorry, not typing out all those Roman numerals). Def Jam was ready to take a big L on 20 Y.O. and wanted to get Janet right back in the studio to craft a guaranteed blockbuster album. Janet, against her better judgement, went along with the idea.

However, she didn’t have a story to tell this time in the studio, and it really showed. This left her entirely in the hands of a bunch of musicians whose names didn’t start with “Jimmy Jam” or “Terry Lewis.” Janet’s vocals are fine but mostly unremarkable. Everyone seemed OK using Janet as a melody-reciter instead of a song interpreter. The result: Discipline is an exceptional Britney Spears record but a comparatively two-dimensional Janet Jackson record.

OK, that was the bad news. Now the good news: the album, considering it was assembled using a lot of flavor-of-the-month producers, has aged really well so far.

Also good news: while most producers failed to work properly with Janet, Ne-Yo (whom I also adore as an artist) distinguished himself by pulling the two best vocal performances of the album out of Janet. (Not a coincidence.) “Can’t B Good” is a jaw-dropping mid-tempo tribute to Michael Jackson. There’s even a YouTube video where the audio is slowed down to lower the pitch, and Janet’s vocal intonations sound remarkably like MJ.

The other Ne-Yo standout is the title track. Critics at the time bristled at the kinky overtones, dismissing it as more pointless Janet-sex-kitten schtick. A few years’ perspective on the song, though, reveals a slinky melody, a relatively restrained S&M lyrical narrative, and an inspired erotic delivery from Janet.

Other highlights include first single “Feedback,” which has showed real staying power in Janet’s live shows in the ensuing years, growing more lean and mean with each interpretation; second single “Rock With U,” a deceptively simple lazy disco romp, surprisingly well-produced by Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri, and fleshed out by an outstanding music video (JD’s other contributions here, however, are underwhelming); and likely single candidates “Luv” and “Rollercoaster,” both of which feature rollicking, catchy production hooks.

I had hopes in 2008 that this hook machine of an album would grant Janet her commercial renaissance, but the media blackout, still only four years old, held sway. Even in the absence of an overt refusal to play Janet’s material, the break in momentum proved to be insurmountable.

Even without millions in sales and multiple hit singles, Discipline serves as an interesting  experiment in alternate-reality Janet, the reality where she didn’t take control, she ceded it.

 

My Music Faves – Unbreakable – Janet Jackson

Reviewed: Unbreakable by Janet Jackson (2015)

By way of getting back into practice, in my return to music blogging, I am going to go back through the catalog of my favorite musical artist, Janet Jackson.

Unbreakable came out four years ago, and the perspective I’ve gained on the record since it came out has been valuable. Elsewhere on the internet there’s a breathless review I wrote proclaiming this Janet’s best work. Now I can be a little more objective.

Actually, what I said was that this release was a deep, thoughtful, clever record that may come to rival The Velvet Rope as Janet’s magnum opus. So I kind of gave it a close second.

The proverbial tree in the forest that no one is around to hear fall comes to mind. Between 20 and 30 years ago, every moment on a Janet record was a heralded cultural tick of the collective clock. By contrast, only a few hundred thousand die-hard fans bought and digested Unbreakable. It’s impossible to compare apples and really popular apples.

And Unbreakable is one tasty, if less popular, apple. Janet poured herself into this project  in a way she hadn’t since Damita Jo in 2004. The two intervening releases, 20 Y.O. and Discipline, were stifled a bit by her failure to own up to the seismic shift in her career that happened after the 2004 Super Bowl. It’s understandable that she wanted to move past it, but Janet albums are always confessional–we all knew it hurt her to be so unfairly targeted, and yet, the Janet that appeared on record ignored that it happened at all. Then, after her brother passed in 2009, I suspect that grief was too much for her to ignore. She took a break from recording at all for five years.

Unbreakable was Janet coming clean: “I lived through my mistakes/It’s just a part of growing/And never for a single moment/Did I ever go without your love,” she opens on the record’s title track, revealing more about her inner dialogue in ten seconds than she had in the previous decade. She spills her guts over the 17-track sprawl (with no interludes this time!) about her brother, her crush on her hubby, her Michael-like distrust of the media, her disillusionment with her own social idealism, and her spirituality, among other topics.

The album seems remarkably organic given this potential laundry listing of topics. It’s just like an old friend that you haven’t seen in years catching up with you about everything important they’ve been pondering and dealing with. She’d never waited as long as 15 years to tell us how she really feels, and she was just about to burst, it seems.

The musicality is just as exciting as ever. She’s certainly not trying to keep up with the current crop of chart-toppers, or straining to outdo them with innovation. The production matches the songs, and Janet’s multi-tracked harmonies are just as dreamy as you remember. The joy of reuniting with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who hadn’t worked with her for a whole album of material since 2001’s All For You, is palpable.

The most fun parts of the record, in fact, are the clever self-references. The instrumental track of “BURNITUP!” is nothing but a sped-up version of “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” On “Dammn Baby,” Jan launches out of left field into the breakdown of “I Get Lonely,” and it works.

The most poignant lyrical moments, though, are the personal references in the two ballads that appear in the album’s second act.

[As a reference point for the non-fan, Janet always seemed more comfortable making veiled, coy, or fictionalized revelations in her songs. I mean, we all knew that her ex-husband Rene Elizondo was the “stupid bitch in my beach house” on “Son of a Gun,” but she paired that zinger with a sample from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” so that he couldn’t try to prove it without seeming like the jerk she was saying he was. Well played, Janet.]

On “Shoulda Known Better,” Janet directly name-checks “Rhythm Nation,” bitterly casting it off as a silly, idealized fantasy. It’s sort of like her brother breaking down and admitting that Billie Jean was in fact his lover. The line is devastating, though ultimately it’s reverse psychology–we know she wants to inspire us to prove her wrong.

On the following track, “After You Fall,” Janet gives perhaps the rawest, most personal vocal of her career. Though it’s couched in the indirect second-person, you can hear the pain and loneliness in her voice as you imagine the isolation she felt after her career was sabotaged in 2004, or as you imagine her sympathizing with what MJ dealt with in his agonized celebrity bubble.

Unbreakable is the Janet record we needed in 2015. It was epic, it was personal, it had Jimmy and Terry, and while reflective, it wasn’t the work of a lady in the twilight of her career–it was (and is) a vibrant piece of pop music.

 

 

 

Back again!

If anyone out there was truly waiting on me to post again, I appreciate your patience. I want to continue my project of reviewing the best albums of all time. But I also want to review new albums, favorite albums, and maybe even some old albums. Oh, and singles, too.

The first record I want to go on–er, record–as reviewing is the most recent release from my favorite artist. (You’ll find out.) I’ll be titling the posts from here out according to the “project” I’m working on, along with the title and artist. So look for a wide variety of editorializing in the following projects:

My Music Faves

New Releases

Singles

Best of All Time

… and maybe some more. Stay tuned.