There’s a lot to be said for longevity, right?

Well, consider the fact that Janet Jackson has survived in the notoriously fickle entertainment business for almost forty years. Since making her debut on the Vegas stage with her famous family, the youngest child of Joseph and Katherine has made her mark as a TV star (Penny on “Good Times,” Charlene on “Diff’rent Strokes,” Cleo on “Fame,”) a movie actress (“Poetic Justice,” “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” and a string of Tyler Perry movies,) a best-selling author (“True You” was a New York Times best seller,) and, of course, one of the most successful pop singers in music history.

Of course, she’s also spent many of those years as a tabloid figure thanks to a string of high-profile relationships, issues with her weight, and, well…the fact that she’s a member of the Jackson family. Oh, yeah–and there was also the infamous Super Bowl “Nipplegate” incident. Although her record sales have slipped and she’s no longer the pop culture force she was in the late ’80s and the ’90s, she’s still Janet. No last name even necessary. Here’s a look at her recorded history.

Janet DebutJanet Jackson (1982): Janet’s first album was made under duress, apparently. She says that her father and brother Randy had the idea to get her signed to a recording contract after discovering some music she’d made alone in the family recording studio. Satisfied with her career as an actress, and looking to go to college to study business law, she resisted, but Papa Joe won out and Jan found herself in the studio with the likes of popular duo Rene & Angela and Foster Sylvers (the youngest member of a family group who’d received tons of comparisons to the Jacksons.) The end result was a pleasant slice of early ’80s pop-funk. There’s not really much indication that the person singing these songs was going to turn into an icon, but Janet’s debut has held up surprisingly well in the thirty years since its release.  The uptempo songs are bouncy in the way most of urban radio was  in the days pre-quiet storm and pre-rap. The slippery funk groove of “Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing” is a highlight, featuring some of Janet’s most gutsy singing. She also scores with the new wave-esque “Come Give Your Love To Me,” which was a top 10 hit on the R&B charts. Missteps? Any track where the tempo slows, and opening song “Say You Do,” which is a bald-faced ripoff of Michael’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”-BM

Grade: B

Dream StreetDream Street (1984): After trying (and not quite succeeding) to make a name for herself without any assistance from her siblings on her debut, Janet turns to her folks for album #2. The end result? Arguably the least listenable of all Janet’s albums, and certainly the worst selling/charting. Brother Marlon produced several tracks, including first single “Don’t Stand Another Chance.” Also prominent on “Chance”-Michael, who adds electric ad-libs and almost steals the track from his baby sister (not his fault: I don’t think Michael was capable of second-fiddling during the period immediately post Thriller.) The remainder of Dream Street is mostly anonymous dance-pop production from disco legend Giorgio Moroder, including an odious duet with British pop singer Cliff Richard (who was easily twice Janet’s age at the time) called “Two To The Power of Love.”  Nodding towards the collaboration that would jump start her singing career, Janet was teamed with former Time member Jesse Johnson for two pleasantly funky cuts-“Pretty Boys” and “Fast Girls.” Janet would soon turn to two of Jesse’s former bandmates and go on to record-breaking success. Unless you’re a super-fan or a completist, you can skip this album entirely.-BM

Grade: C

Janet ControlControl (1986): When I hear this album it reminds me of two things. As a 9-year old this was probably the most played CD in our house with my mom blasting Janet while cleaning the house or cooking us dinner. Second, the NBA Superstars video featuring Magic Johnson. Almost 20 years later and my brother and I still sing “Control” while throwing behind-the-back passes in the backyard.

Though this was Janet’s third album, Control was her breakthrough and tossed her right into the mix with the other pop ladies of that time, Whitney and Madonna (*cough* overrated!). Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis brought out a streetwise, mature side of Janet that was fairly unprecedented in the pop/R&B world at the time.

Five of the nine songs on the album were top 5 hits, with Jackson again mixing dance tracks like “Control” and “Nasty” with the very 80s sounding “When I Think of You” and “The Pleasure Principle” and the ballad “Let’s Wait Awhile”, the one track from this album that stands the test of time.-KJ

(Big Money respectfully disagrees with this assessment and thinks Control is-except for “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive”-which sounds like it wandered in from the first two albums by accident-perfect.)

Grade: B 

Rhythm NationJanet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989): Four Billboard No. 1 hits. The first and only album to have seven top 5 Billboard hits. The first and only album to score No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 in three separate calendar years. Drop microphone and walk away.

OK, so we can’t really leave it at that can we? Janet followed up the highly successful Control with a smash. Not many artists can do that. Janet teamed up with hit-making duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on all but one of the tracks (she penned the guitar heavy “Black Cat”). The result? The aforementioned seven top 5 hits: “Black Cat”; “Rhythm Nation,” a statement song with a killer dance video; “Miss You Much”, the Told-Them-We’d-Make-It “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”; “Alright”; the skipping on the beach holding hands tune “Escapade”, and my favorite, the brokenhearted ballad “Come Back to Me.”

The only thing holding back the plus from my grade are eight Interludes. Now it’s time to drop that mic and walk away.-KJ

(Interestingly, Big Money’s three favorite tracks from the album-“State of the World,” “The Knowledge,” and “Lonely”-weren’t even released as singles in the U.S. At any rate, Rhythm Nation is as good as it gets when it comes to pop/rock/soul/new jack swing syntheses. There’s not a bad track to be found here-although “Black Cat” is kinda inessential…)

Grade: A

Janetjanet. (1993): Don’t judge a book by its cover. What about a CD? The original album cover showing Janet’s breasts cupped by then husband Rene Elizondo, Jr. told the whole story of the music that waited inside. The cover was sexy and the music inside was about to tell us just how sexy it was. The first track “That’s the Way Love Goes” opens with the lyrics “Like a moth to a flame burned by the fire, my love is blind can’t you see my desire?” As a 16-year old adolescent … I’m all in! (ed. note: as a 36 year old adult, I’m all in!)

“You Want This” sounded too much like “The Best Things in Life Are Free”, her duet with Luther Vandross from the “Mo’ Money” soundtrack but was still catchy and talked about us wanting Janet. Meanwhile in “If”, an upbeat dance track, she told us what she would to us if she was our girl. And in “Any time, Any Place” one of her more sexy, soulful ballads ever, makes the hair on our neck raise as we think about what the finale would be like.

The album also features my two favorite Janet tracks of all-time: “Where Are You Now” and “Again.”

“Where Are You Now” tells the story of someone that has let the love of their life slip away and are left wondering years later where they are and is there still hope. The ballad “Again” can almost be played as a sequel to “Where Are You Now”. If you’ve ever been in love and years later ran across the old flame then you know the feeling Janet tells us about. You don’t want to fall again but there’s that hope that it might work out. OK … so listening to this album may have brought back memories.  Again, what’s with the Interludes? 13 of them!-KJ

Grade: A-

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our Note for Note devoted to the music of Janet Jackson…coming soon!

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