One of the bigger surprises this winter has been the success of Janet Jackson’s “Number Ones” tour. After the relative failure of the singer/actress’s “Rock With U” tour a couple of years back, many thought that the youngest Jackson sibling was washed up and done for. However, Janet scaled back from arenas to theaters and has enjoyed a fairly successful run through the country. At a time when many legendary artists are struggling to fill venues (it’s called lowering ticket prices, folks), it’s a definite plus that Janet’s doing well.

Should we be surprised, though? Far be it for me to say this about one of the most successful artists in any genre over the past twenty-five years, but it seems like Janet’s a bit underrated/underappreciated.

Let’s compare her to the woman who’s been her chief competition for most of their careers-Madonna. Janet’s first album was released in 1982, Madonna’s first 12″ single was released the same year, with her debut album following a year later. Madonna’s peak was roughly 1984-1990 (“Lucky Star”/”Borderline” through “Vogue”). Janet’s peak was roughly 1986-1994 (“Control” through the end of “janet”‘s run). Madonna has twelve number one singles and seven number one albums, Janet has ten number one singles and six number one albums. Madonna has seven Grammy Awards, Janet has five. Both have contributed a great deal to the writing and production of their music (on a collaborative level, for the most part). Both are video icons, both have embraced the gay community, and both have had periods where their public image has overshadowed their music-Madonna had the “Sex”/”Erotica”, “Body of Influence” era of the early-mid Nineties, and Janet had Nipplegate, the lingering effects of which seem to continue to this day. Both have been chastised for their vocal shortcomings, both have undergone their share of messy relationships, and both have given acting a shot. Janet’s been more commercially successful (three of her movies have opened at #1), while Madonna’s got the Golden Globe Award (for “Evita”).

So, why isn’t JJ mentioned in the same breath as Madge when it comes to legendary status? A lot can be attributed to that infamous nip slip. There’s a definite sense that Madonna’s redeemed herself after her hypersexual escapades in the early Nineties. There was “Evita”, then there was Lourdes, then there was “Ray of Light”. The Queen of Reinvention staged her most successful reinvention of all. For better or worse (mostly worse), the Super Bowl incident has had a lingering effect. The silent boycott that was placed on her music by MTV and pop radio has been lifted, but although she’s been a mainstay on MTV again for about five years, radio has never turned all the way around. There’s also the sense that she’s paying for the sins of some of her relatives (hey, being a Jackson won’t get you everywhere), and there’s the dreaded “R” word-race. May not be the foremost reason, but in terms of legacy, really the only thing separating Madge and Janet in terms of career achievement is the fact that Madonna is white and Janet is not. When you consider the fact that Janet is probably the most influential Black non-hip-hop artist of the past 25 years (BritneyChristinaMonicaBrandyCiaraAaliyahKeriHilson…need I go on?), and has not yet even ¬†been considered for the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame while Madonna’s already enshrined…well, something’s up.

Going back to the reinvention topic again, though-I feel like that’s what Janet needs. Because let’s face it, her music has gotten progressively stale since “The Velvet Rope”, her most artistically ambitious album. Each of her albums since have had some decent material on them (even “20 Y.O.”-easily the shittiest album to ever come out under her name), but Janet also has to relieve herself of some bad habits-her over-reliance on sexual material (no one likes a one-trick pony-even a HOT one-trick pony) and her albums’ tendency to O.D. on unnecessary skits. Thank God for iTunes, because Janet’s albums (even the good ones) had a tendency to wear out the “skip” button on my CD player just by virtue of the damn skits.

Should Janet be trying to reclaim her musical throne commercially? No. That would require having to make commercial concessions, something Janet doesn’t need to do and shouldn’t have to do. At this point, it should be about preserving her legacy. I’d advise a return to the studio with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis STAT. No, Jimmy & Terry aren’t the hitmakers they once were, but they and Janet are an excellent working team-a near-perfect match of singer/songwriter and producer. She’s strayed from them over the past three albums…time to come back home. She also needs to focus less on the coochie-talk and write songs about her life-again, go back to the “Control”/”Rhythm Nation”/”janet.”/”Velvet Rope” template. Of course, that starts with her actually resuming WRITING SONGS. One of the most disheartening things about “Discipline” (which wasn’t a bad album, just not up to JJ’s standards) was that Janet had not one writing or production credit on the entire album-and Janet had written or co-written just about every hit single she’d had for twenty-plus years prior.

Or maybe Janet’s satisfied. She can tour singing her greatest hits, Tyler Perry will probably have an unlimited supply of movie roles for her (as long as Janet doesn’t start appearing in Madea movies, we’re good), and the success of her recent (and awful) new book proves that the spotlight still looks good for her (random aside: since she’s legally prohibited from discussing Rene, does that mean we’ll never get the juicy autobiography that I know she has in her?). So, maybe it’s just me (and the rest of Janet’s fans) who want her to create music that speaks to us and show us some true artistry-something she’s only done intermittently for the past decade or so. You don’t have to bring the black bodysuits and baseball caps back, but give us something with substance! Not only do your fans deserve it, but so do you.

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