Let’s pick up where we left off! Find the first part of our column here.
The Velvet Rope (1997): To Janet’s credit, it’s extremely hard to put together three straight hit albums (just ask my boys Boyz II Men). I’m not talking just selling-power hit – the album went straight to No. 1 – I’m talking sales and more importantly quality! For me The Velvet Rope, though critically praised, wasn’t as strong from top to bottom as her prior three albums. Other than “Together Again,” a peppy tribute to those that have passed on, the rest of the album didn’t leave me wanting more. You can give me “I Get Lonely” and “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” featuring a rap by Q-Tip and samples of Joni Mitchell’s voice from her hit “Big Yellow Taxi,” but keep the rest. KJ’s Grade: C.
The Velvet Rope is certainly one of the more artistic ventures Janet (along with Jam, Lewis and her then-husband Rene Elizondo) undertook during her career-it’s quite dark. Written and recorded as the singer was going through a deep depression, it certainly pushes the envelope (musically and lyrically) more than the average pop album. Conceptually, it deserves an “A.” Musically? Well…hang on a second. The title track (which samples the theme from the freaking “Exorcist!”) is a great mission statement, you can feel the anger coming out of songs like “You” and the domestic violence drama “What About,” and it’s not like “fun Janet” has totally disappeared, as evidenced by the party jam “Go Deep” and the disco homage/elegy for AIDS victims “Together Again.” Even her gender-fucked remake of Rod Stewart’s #1 smash “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)” is a keeper. The album’s final quarter, however, sags with a couple of tired bedroom ballads like “Rope Burn” and “Anything,” though. There would be a few more years when Janet’s horndog act was at least somewhat intriguing, but these songs marked the beginning of a steady decline in that arena. Big Money’s Grade: B
All For You (2001): Fun, upbeat, somewhat sexy but definitely trying to keep up with the bubble gum pop music that had taken over the early 2000s (SEE: Spears, Britney; Backstreet Boys; N*Sync), All for You lacked the substance that Janet’s earlier albums gave us (as did that bubble gum music). The title-track, “All for You” was the lone hit from the album and she added other pop-dance tracks like, “Someone to Call My Lover”, “Doesn’t Really Matter” and “Come On Get Up.” Because the album left me bobbing my head I’ll give it a … KJ’s Grade: C-plus.
Freshly divorced, All For You was a conscious decision to make the scenery a little brighter after the darkness of The Velvet Rope. Not to say that she didn’t still have some anger to let go of-”Son of a Gun” (which interpolates Carly Simon’s #1 smash “You’re So Vain”) unloads on ex-husband Rene Elizondo something awful. However, the majority of the album features the peppy dance jams and seductive love songs Janet was well known for. My favorites? “Come On Get Up,” a house-spiked tune that’s a call-to-arms to the dance floor, the slightly reggae-influenced “When We Ooo,” and the neo-disco of the title track. Janet also broadened her horizons a little bit from a musical standpoint, working with hip-hop producer Rockwilder on several tracks. It was the first time in a decade and a half she’d worked with producers outside the Jam/Lewis fold, and the result (at least at the time) was a refreshing and a pretty good fit, besides. Too bad he couldn’t help assist with the diminishing quality of the downtempo ballads, now placed in the middle of the album as opposed to at the end where they’d been on the last couple of Janet efforts. “Would You Mind” and “Love Scene?’ Program them out, and thank me later. Grade: B- (Big Money)
Damita Jo (2004): The after-effects of the titty seen round the world (after she exposed herself-with some assistance from Justin Timberlake-on the Super Bowl) muted the commercial impact of Damita Jo, and the combination of the controversy and the album’s mediocre sales have resulted in the album being unnecessarily ignored. Not to say Damita Jo is a great album-it’s not. But it is-largely-listenable, almost as much so as its predecessor. Janet starts to push even further away from the Jam/Lewis fold, and the results are mixed. The rock-flavored “Just a Little While” (produced by Dallas Austin) had appealing echoes of Prince’s Dirty Mind era, and the contributions from an upstart Kanye West (“My Baby” and “I Want You”) are pleasant, fairly innocuous pop/soul nuggets. The trance-like “Slolove” is another winner-with a groove designed to cool a hard-dancing crowd off at the end of the night. On the other side of the equation, Babyface contributes a stone cold dud (“Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Ex” might be one of the five or ten worst songs he’s ever had involvement with,) “Strawberry Bounce” takes a one-word Jay-Z sample and runs it into the ground, and-once again-Janet spends way too much time working on her Penthouse Forum skills. Seriously. There’s a song on the album called “Moist.” We get it, Janet-your love of sex is a good “angle” for you. But maybe it’s time to do something different? Grade: B- (Big Money)
20 Y.O. (2006): The title of Janet’s 2006 album was meant to be something of a homage to Control, the breakthrough album released twenty years ago. If the older album was an actual person, it would have hung its head in shame at the comparison. Produced largely by Janet’s then-boyfriend, Jermaine Dupri, 20 Y.O. was decidedly average upon it’s release, and it hasn’t aged well. While it certainly scores points for being the most compact of Janet’s albums, the songs are beneath her standard. Janet doesn’t sound like the 19 year old with a ship on her shoulder that she was on Control, nor does she sound like a 40 year old woman with years of experience and success behind her. Instead, on songs like “So Excited,” she sounds like Ciara’s desperate big sister. When you start aping your less-talented successors, you know you’ve got a problem. The two exceptions-the peppy “Daybreak” (which sounds like a 21st century update of “Escapade”) and the bittersweet “Enjoy” (which was apparently recorded while waiting for the verdict in brother Michael’s trial.) Certainly the least essential album of Janet’s adult career. Grade: C-
Discipline (2008): After 20 Y.O. failed to light the charts on fire, Janet switched labels from Virgin to Island, teamed up with a who’s who of modern writers and producers, and came up with Discipline. The album returned Janet to the top of the charts, but didn’t stay there and remains the lowest-selling album of her career (minus her first two albums.) While a Janet album with no involvement from Jam and Lewis comes with low expectations (not to mention an album with no lyrical involvement from Janet herself,) the patchwork team of producer/writers does a pretty good job creating a modern simulation of the Janet sound. The beats are booming on songs like “Feedback,” Janet delivers one of her best sexual boasts on “So Much Betta,” and the Ne-Yo penned “Can’t B Good” is a standout track. The album isn’t a total success-Janet has decided to go overboard on the unnecessary interludes again, and the title track is an absolute atrocity (note: when you are a member of one of the most famously abused families in history, making a song about how much you love “Daddy”‘s discpline is kinda gross,) but it’s arguably the most cohesive album she put out during the entire decade. Grade: B-
Compilations/Soundtracks/Other Assorted Stuff: There are three Janet comps floating around. Design of a Decade 1986/96 offers up the biggest hits from her peak era, and adds two pleasant if inessential new songs, but just by virtue of release date, is missing a few things. Number Ones is more comprehensive at 2 discs, and if you’re willing to go the compilation route, is probably the album you want to have of hers. Icon distills Number Ones back to one disc. There are also two remix discs: Control-The Remixes is a nice addition to your music collection-as many of Control‘s songs were tweaked slightly for radio. janet.remixed is less essential, but it does contain the B-side “And On And On,” a summery funk groove that arguably received more radio play than some of Janet’s actual hits.
Speaking of B-sides, Janet’s one of the few pop stars out there that would be able to put together at least a pretty decent EP of B-sides. While the aforementioned “And On And On” can now be found on an album (as can “’70s Love Groove”-which appeared on the “You Want This” single,) there’s a few other noteworthy B-sides, including “Skin Game” (which appeared on the “Come Back To Me” 12″,) her cover of brother Randy’s “One More Chance” (the B-side to “If,”) and the autobiographical “You Need Me,” an open letter to Papa Joe that appeared as the B-side to the #1 smash “Miss You Much.”
Most of Janet’s soundtrack work has been compiled on her hits collections, most notably 1992′s “The Best Things In Life Are Free” (a duet with Luther Vandross from the Mo’ Money soundtrack) and the #1 smash “Doesn’t Really Matter” from The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. She started appearing on other artists’ records with some frequency around the Velvet Rope era, scoring hits with Busta Rhymes, Shaggy and BLACKstreet, to name a few. One of her more interesting duets is a take on the dramatic “I Know The Truth,” which appears on Elton John & Tim Rice’s Aida album. There are also a fair amount of unreleased tracks (dating from her more recent string of albums) that can be found on file-sharing sites and on YouTube.