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.