It’s been a good month for Malcolm McLaren. After almost a decade of stillborn projects, he suddenly owns pieces of the music publishing rights on two American No. 1 albums. Samples of songs with which he was at best tenuously involved give him composition credits on Mariah Carey’s Butterfly and Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope (Virgin). Whisking the old rogue away from the brink of penury isn’t the only thing the two records have in common. Ms. Carey’s album has been applauded for the modicum of candor that permeates its lyrical content. Ms. Jackson, who has never fought shy of dipping an exploratory toe into the pool of full disclosure, is, through the duration of The Velvet Rope , in it up to her neck. “What about the times you hit my face, what about the times you kept on when I said no more, please,” she snarls on “What About,” continuing, “What about the times you said you didn’t fuck her, she only gave you head?”
“What About” is The Velvet Rope ‘s most emotionally abandoned selection, but it certainly isn’t any kind of anomaly in terms of its uncosmeticized openness. In the course of the album’s 75-minute run, Ms. Jackson addresses her masturbatory dream-life (“My Need”), her enthusiasm for bondage (“Rope Burn”), her unwillingness to be shackled by the parameters of gender (“Free Xone” and a re-reading of Rod Stewart’s 1976 hit “Tonight’s the Night” as an invitation to a threesome), and her desire to cruise a club, snag a stud, drag him home and do him (“Go Deep”). At first listen, this isn’t the work of the Janet Jackson who 11 years earlier whispered “Let’s Wait Awhile.” But, actually, that’s exactly what it is.
There used to be another Janet Jackson. Aimless, chubby-cheeked, seemingly talent-free and determinedly trading off the family name, she made dead-duck albums like Dream Street and fleshed out the casts of Good Times and Fame . That Janet Jackson disappeared in 1986 after a trip to Minneapolis for the purposes of meeting writer-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Famed for their practice of delving deep into an artist’s personality to fashion their music, Messrs. Jam and Lewis found in Ms. Jackson yards of blank canvas. And on that surface they painted a masterpiece. Control was a perfect slice of sassy, thumping mid-80’s pop. Once a chirpy cipher, Janet was suddenly the voice of all good little girls straining at the leash. She took no quarter from her family, gave her slack-ass boyfriend his marching orders and haughtily informed the roughnecks of the world that her first name wasn’t baby, it was Janet-Miss Jackson, if you were nasty.
Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989, was a conceptual misstep that saw Janet sup too thirstily from brother Michael’s messiah mug. Despite lyrics and videos that depicted her as some funky clubland Gestapo figure who saved blameless urchins from the blood-soaked streets, she breathed rapturous life into some of her most exhilarating material, songs like “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” “Escapade” and “Come Back to Me.” Janet , in 1993, was an extended exploration of the singer’s sexuality. Sweetness and lust coiled around each other on “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “The Body That Loves You,” “Throb” and “Any Time Any Place.” The Velvet Rope is the Janet of all these albums. She still wants to be in control, she still wants respect, and she still has family issues. (On “You,” she points an accusing finger at an intimate who has “learned to survive in your fictitious world.” Educated guess: It ain’t Tito!) But now she also wants to be tied up, to get down and, ultimately, to find love. No wonder she hangs her newly hennaed head of corkscrew curls on the cover. She’s got a lot on her mind.
Of course, it may seem like she’s got Madonna’s Erotica album on her mind. The records share similar thematic preoccupations, but Madonna had off-loaded her most sympathetic collaborator, Patrick Leonard, by that point and Erotica ‘s hooks rarely matched its shocks. Ms. Jackson, on the other hand, has, with her decade-long association with Jam & Lewis forged one of the most creatively rewarding alliances in the history of popular music. The 90’s haven’t been a banner decade for the two producers. They may not have sunk as low as Malcolm McLaren, but their Perspective Records imprint was a drastic underperformer and their recent catalogue of hits for the likes of Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige and Vanessa Williams has tended toward the serviceable and away from the inspirational. This from a team who ended the 80’s constructing a knockout album for Pia Zadora.
Working with Janet Jackson, though, returns the duo to full artistic power. For the on-line fantasy “Empty,” they surround her ruminations with an ornate keyboard loop, then painstakingly increase tension, throwing in skittery, frantic drum programs and swirling sound effects. On “What About,” they shift gears from moist, acoustic contemplation to the jagged little attack of the chorus. On the AIDS elegy “Together Again,” they send Janet’s sentiments floating heavenward, propelled by a shimmering mirror ball of a disco backdrop over which she emotes like Diana Ross circa The Boss.
The Velvet Rope climaxes with “Special,” a summing-up of the singer’s emotional journey, which brings in a children’s choir and emphasizes the key phrase, “You’ve got to water your spiritual garden.” Just as you’re expecting Deepak Chopra to add some closing thoughts, Ms. Jackson suddenly curtails the song with a curt “Work in progress,” in reference to herself.
Wherever Janet Jackson’s voyage of self-discovery leads her-whether she devotes herself to saving beagles, learning cabala or practicing tantric sex-it can only be hoped an album as unexpected and affecting as The Velvet Rope is the ultimate result. All told, 1997 is shaping up to be a vintage diva season. Next up, Céline Dion’s album, which, it’s rumored, recounts a particularly traumatic depilatory mishap.