Even after all this time, Janet Jackson is inevitably forced to retain ‘sister of Michael’ as part of her CV.
For those of us who truly love R&B and soul music, though, she will forever be one of our most cherished performers, and the artist whose catalogue and influence shines brighter than ever. I’ll readily admit to the fact that I’ve made the statement “Janet > Michael” to people as a means of testing their musical character. Whilst I wouldn’t seriously hold this as a firm belief, if a person’s reaction isn’t to think this argument in any way outlandish, then they’re definitely on the side of right.
With any discussions regarding Janet, we should remember that she spent the bulk of her career working with the greatest of all time, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the production geniuses who steered her work peerlessly through the ‘hip-hop soul’ sea change of the early 90s. These years claimed many a victim: Bobby Brown, Al B. Sure, Aaron Hall and others were swept aside as 80s soul and swingbeat morphed into what we currently enjoy as R&B. Janet, on the other hand, released perhaps her most defining work in this period (1993’s self-titled album, janet.) as if she was fresh out of the box.
A key factor in Janet’s music from the 80s was her embracing of tempo and joy (particularly with lead singles), a sound that reflected the brasher, more grandstanding times that her brother, the market leader, defined. However, with the 90s fully underway, Janet’s re-emergence was with the subtle, mid-tempo ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ and a video about as far away from wireless headsets and shoulder-pads as you could go. The second half of janet. contains songs, particularly ‘The Body That Loves You’ into ‘Any Time Any Place’, where Janet delivers the kind of loose, plaintive vocal that’s always been credited to Aaliyah when discussing the modern female R&B landscape, despite this album arriving almost a year earlier. She repeated this on The Velvet Rope, where more ethereal songs like ‘Anything’ are pretty much the blueprint of the R&B that we now listen to.
Although Brandy will forever be the signifier for the ‘deep cuts’ tag, Janet has an even better claim to this title, often tucking away quiet storm gems like ‘Feels So Right’ and ‘Truly’ right near the end of albums. As she’s also been totally unafraid to switch moods from energetic club records to slow-jams (a far cry from some of the one-note R&B albums this decade has brought), her career could easily be compiled as either a flawless club collection or a slow-paced bedroom album – and both and both would annihilate all competition. The ATL bass-pop lane that Ciara exists in? Janet did it first. Those breathy, slow placed jams of Tinashe and FKA twigs? A 20 year-old concern for Janet.
Most crucially of all, although Janet embraced instrumental experimentation, she never relied too heavily on the production movement of whatever time she was working in (despite work spanning collaborations with everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Kanye West). Instead, her authenticity came from her vocals, and she mastered the art of sitting in the pocket of the groove like nobody else. It’s impossible to listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent vocal on ‘All That’ without immediately thinking of mid-80s Janet, and the distant, cool essence of many modern singers is something that Janet fostered long ago.
In short, Janet Jackson (with, of course, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) remains one of the key architects of the modern R&B sound, and with a new album on the way, has a catalogue that simply demands to be revisited. Her 15-year, five-album run from 1986 to 2001 in particular is one of the best in all music. It’s a thankless task trying to pick key records from a career that’s so extensive and so loved by us soul addicts. So here’s just five (one from each of those aforementioned albums, plus a bonus) that I will always feel both musically and personally significant.
‘When I Think Of You’ (from Control, 1986)
If you want an era-defining mid-80s record without any of the crassness that has aged other music from the time so badly, then this is the one. Grooves within grooves within grooves direct from the Flyte Tyme Production Studios, and the effortless, light vocal is the definition of everything Janet from this moment on.
‘Escapade’ (from Rhythm Nation 1814, 1989)
One of the many Janet Jackson records where the self-conscious need not apply. The staccato joy of this hook is something that she repeated and updated throughout her career (’Go Deep’, ‘All For You’) and every single time both dancers and the positivity-inclined around the world rejoiced. You would have to be the bitterest of the bitter to not feel some sense of happiness when this record plays.
‘Any Time, Any Place’ (from janet., 1993)
Kendrick reviving this for a new generation is one of the greatest gifts of his already great career, and this record remains one of the best quiet storm records of all time. To truly create that R&B feeling, the groove and bottom-end on a record has simply got to be luxurious and romantic and let’s be honest, the romance and luxury found here is peerless.
‘Empty’ (from The Velvet Rope, 1997)
If any of Janet’s 90s records could be re-released and feel totally contemporary, then it’s this one. The rhythms remain almost impossible to place chronologically and with Janet in her most visually bohemian phase, she managed to embrace the future, predicting a world of interaction we’re now all too familiar with.
‘Doesn’t Really Matter’ (from All For You, 2001)
This was Jam and Lewis competing – as they did throughout their career – with new sounds. In this case, they set their sights on producers like Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins and She’kspere, making Janet relevant to a younger generation whose formative years were soundtracked by Destiny’s Child, Lil Mo and Nivea. As with everything Janet, however, it retains those incredible bridges and breakdowns that render the song timeless. For some perspective, bear in mind this was almost 20 years on from her debut record.
Bonus: ‘Let’s Wait A While’ (from Control, 1986)
This had to be included (despite it also being from Control) purely because it’s my favourite Janet Jackson song. To anyone with any sense, this is one of the greatest soul songs of all time.