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.