The arc of history has done unfortunate things to Janet Jackson and her legacy. For one of the most relevant artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s, her career suffered a nearly fatal blow when the CBS corporation blacklisted her and her relevance precipitously waned. But at her height, Jackson was a megastar, setting records and riding the biggest waves in pop music. If you’re looking for the blueprints for the Minneapolis Sound, New Jack Swing, or modern alt R&B, look no further than Miss Jackson. As iconic as each of her eras was, it may be her 1997 record The Velvet Rope that her long overdue rediscovery will be marked as her magnum opus. In my book, it’s the best album of the ‘90s. Whatever else I say about each song on the record and what it’s doing, just assume I think it’s doing it perfectly, because I do.
Having spent the previous decade on a fairly typical superstar touring and recording schedule—releasing an album every two years—Janet was going into the decade on the back of her most ambitious and iconic album to date: Rhythm Nation 1814. It was political, liberating, seductive, and a masterpiece in its own right. She could let that be her defining album or keep pressing onward with more ambitious releases. She answered that query four years later with the release of her twenty-eight track long self-titled album Janet (which features one of my favourite Jackson songs: the Morricone-Western inflected “This Time”) and another four years later with The Velvet Rope. Throughout the decade, her albums kept getting bigger, more elaborate, more conceptual, and better.
The album’s themes of emotional needs and how they interact with sexuality—sometimes in unison, sometimes in friction or in a more paradoxical harmony—demanded a more mature, vulnerable, and explicit take, and the record was considered controversial by some. The sounds of R&B may have shifted since the release of The Velvet Rope, but nothing about it has aged one thousandth as poorly as the so-called controversy surrounding its lyrics embracing sexual freedom. Today, even the most chaste R&B records go well beyond anything Janet brings up on The Velvet Rope, but few manage to approach the sense of intimacy and vulnerability with which Janet delivers them.
The dual themes of emotional need and sexuality are perfectly encapsulated by the parallelism of the early track “Velvet Rope” and the later track “Rope Burn”, with the rope in one being a metaphor for the artificial social barrier between where you are accepted and welcome and the place you long to be, into which Miss Jackson invites us with this opening number, and in the other, a sensuous allusion to the power her partner’s sexuality holds over her and the sexual frisson the loss of control gives her. The latter track is easily the album’s most intensely erotic moment, with Janet’s hushed delivery orgasmically murmuring lyrics about bondage and having candle wax dripped on her body.
Throughout the album these two interleaving themes are expressed via not only the lyrics but the interleaving of more traditionally sensual R&B production and more experimental pseudo-rock and industrial funk elements. No track goes harder in this direction than the most ear-grabbing and disarming track on the album: “What About”. Opening with lush guitars and the sounds of waves lapping on a beach, priming the listener for a sensitive and intimate romantic ballad before ripping that reassurance away with a funk riff and an explosive chorus where Janet mentally recounts the partner’s emotional and physical abuse—“What about the times you said no one would want me? […] What about the times I cried, you wouldn’t even hold me […] What about the times you hit my face, what about the times you kept on when I said no more please! […] What about the time you said you didn’t f**k up she only gave you head?”—memories of which are ripping her away from this moment of intimacy and vulnerability, and potentially to safety.
It’s a ferociously detailed and angry portrait of an abusive relationship that leaves the listener genuinely anxious for the woman’s well-being as it cuts off after she finally lets him have it out loud on the final chorus, where you can really hear her getting up in his face with every word. It’s extremely cathartic to hear the character let out her anger and berate him, but we still know her anger is getting the better of her and this could turn very ugly. Some form of reassurance comes on the following track, “Every Time”, where she sings from the perspective of a woman learning to trust again and falling head over heels for someone new. It’s a sappy little love song but it’s well earned by this point and provides some kind of emotional release for the record, if not for the story itself, as the two songs are not quite explicitly connected beyond their sequence and the shared word in the title.
The album’s themes of sexual liberation come through in a variety of ways beyond the outright erotic nature of tracks like “Go Deep” and “Rope Burn” (which Janet performed onstage while giving a chosen audience member a lap dance). On the title track Janet sings, “Living the truth will set you free”, and she depicts this freedom in a sexual revolution on the funky dance classic “Free Xone”, rewriting timeless “boy meets girl” narratives into a musical chairs of fluid sexuality and gender switching through her spoken word passages: “One rule: no rules, One love: free zone”. Today a moment like her romantic performance of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” where the script is flipped into a same sex or perhaps pluralistic encounter—as implied by Janet’s spoken word intro stating: “This is just between me and you and you”—or “Interlude – Speaker Phone”—a comedic skit where Janet is heard masturbating while on the phone with her female friend––would likely be read as shameless queerbaiting or playing coquettishly to the male ear. However, in the context of the late ‘90s, it was a sharply provocative and humorous celebration of sexuality and self-ownership within a closed loop of femininity.
As central as Janet’s own bold artistic vision was to the record, a word must be said about the note perfect production throughout by Minneapolis producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as Janet’s then husband Rene Elizondo. From the exquisite hip-hop sample chopping on the lead single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” to the soft brass fanfares on the hidden end track “Can’t Be Stopped”, there’s not a note or beat out of place or that doesn’t land in a perfect just so fashion. The blends of synth-funk, neo soul, art pop, and trip hop presented on The Velvet Rope were every bit as forward thinking at the time as they have been influential in the alternative R&B scene of today, sounding both tastefully vintage and exhilaratingly bold.
On the subject of the album’s other contributors: Vanessa-Mae’s experimental violin contributions help make the outro to the title track as gloriously magisterial as it is, and of course the biggest single, the jazzy neo soul cut “Got Til It’s Gone” which features not only Joni Mitchell’s performance of her immortal environmentalist classic “Big Yellow Taxi”, but also a typically charismatic performance from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. But after the first four tracks, Janet holds the stage herself and the absence of other voices (excluding her backing singers) isn’t felt at all. Janet’s presence has never been more commanding, for all its vulnerability and honesty, holding the record together in a cohesive, coherent, and conceptual direction despite its lack of compromises when it comes to versatility and variety, sandwiching smooth dance cuts like “Together Again” up against the cold, curious, and soulfully trippy “Empty”.
Each time I replay The Velvet Rope, I come away overawed by a different moment or aspect of the record. Sometimes it’s the impeccable hooks like: “We go deeeep and we don’t get no sleeeep, ’cause we be up all niiiight, to the early liiiiight”, or the rich tapestry of production where I notice some new perfect detail every time, like the hopeful little horn flares and keyboard arpeggios on “I Get Lonely”. Other times it’s the conceptual ambition of tracks like “What About” or “You” where Janet berates the ingratiating phony she fears herself to be, or just the sheer virtuosity of every single performance. There simply isn’t a moment on The Velvet Rope that doesn’t impress me and draw me further down the rabbit hole this album has become for me. The more I listened to it while writing this review, the more confident I became in my claim that this is not only the best album of 1997, but my favourite album of the ’90s. Sorry In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, maybe your turn will come next year.