Janet Jackson's 'The Velvet Rope': still one of RnB's most influential albums 25 years on

The singer's sixth album celebrates its 25th anniversary this month

Janet Jackson gets deep in career-best album 'The Velvet Rope'. AP
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Janet Jackson’s biggest-selling albums, Control (1986) and Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), were not only supremely confident in mastering various dance forms, but also had the singer sounding in command of her persona and emotions.

The Velvet Rope, on the other hand, is the sonic and emotional flipside of those bouncy records.

It’s the sound of the morning after the party, with its share of grief and regrets.

Twenty-five years later, it is still regarded as Jackson’s most affecting work, in addition to expanding the parameters of what modern RnB can be.

'The Velvet Rope' by Janet Jackson. Photo: Virgin Records

To understand its impact, we need to look back at the context of its release.

Coming off the back her first greatest hits album, Design of a Decade: 1986 to 1996, Jackson creatively cleared the decks. She didn't so much deliver a reinvention, but a deep dive into some of the vulnerabilities and doubts stemming from being one of the most famous artists on the planet, not to mention being a member of what some have called “the first family of pop music”.

While this is not entirely original subject matter, such lyrical open heart surgery by a mega-pop star was unprecedented for that time.

It set the trend for the kind of transition albums increasingly used by big acts today, from Beyonce's Lemonade (2016) and Rihanna’s R-Rated (2009) to Usher’s Confessions (2004).

With the exception of Beyonce, however, few have reached the level of fearlessness Jackson exhibits, tackling everything from her then-regular bouts of depression and eating disorder to self-sabotage.

This is encapsulated in You, a vehicle for her most lacerating set of lyrics to date.

The percolating nature of the trip-hop production mirrors Jackson’s rising angst as she declares: "Here I am in your face. Tellin' truths and not your old lies."

Perhaps because of the adoring fan base and sycophantic staff surrounding her, Jackson takes it upon herself to deliver some tough love.

"Learned to survive in your fictitious world. Does what they think of you determine your worth?" she sings, sounding distant and dispassionate.

“If special's what you feel when you're with them / Taken away, you feel 'less than' again."

I Get Lonely is the kind of grown-up RnB Alicia Keys would take to fame nearly five years later.

Lush yet restrained, it’s a lugubrious ballad that never feels overblown, despite Jackson's vocals sounding orchestral at parts. It's undercut by the starkness of the lovelorn couplets: “Sittin' here with my tears / All alone with my fears, I'm wondering / If I have to do without you.”

Jackson also uses The Velvet Rope to share her concerns on various societal and existential matters, from a tender meditation on mortality (Together Again) to the scourge of domestic violence (What About You).

Matching Jackson’s lyrical leaps are producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

For the regular Jackson collaborators, The Velvet Rope is not only a career best effort but, also, their most influential.

The fierce sonic experimentalism, from the free-style jazz and Blaxploitation funk of Free Xone, the stuttering percussion of My Need to the adventurous sampling and DJ scratching of the hit Got Til It’s Gone, elevated the RnB sub genre neo-soul to the mainstream.

It also set the stage for a new and alternative RnB that became home to artists such as The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, Sza and Janelle Monae.

Jackson never managed to match the creative peak of The Velvet Rope, but can we blame her?

Born out of intense pain, such baring of the soul has to be mentally damaging if repeated regularly.

However, by providing an unvarnished glimpse at her inner turmoil, she gave us and fellow artists encouragement to be more open with ourselves.

A quarter of a century later, it is a message that hasn’t lost its power and appeal.

Updated: October 14, 2022, 6:02 PM
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