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.