At the outset of her career, and for a good fifteen or so years later, Janet Jackson was everyone’s little sister. I’m a decade younger than her and I felt like she was my little sister (well, to a degree.) Of course, for the first part of those fifteen years, she was best known as the youngest member of the performing Jackson family. A couple of teenybopper pop/soul albums and sitcom roles only mildly distinguished her from the rest of the pack. Then Control came and made her a superstar. Despite the success of that 1986 juggernaut and the equally successful follow up Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), there was still a whiff of “little sister” about it, a certain innocence that caused folks to think of her as a sex symbol only in abstract terms. There were flashes-the videos for “Pleasure Principle” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” immediately come to mind-but there were still less degrees of separation from Janet and her role as Charlene in Diff’rent Strokes than there were from the Janet that was about to be unleashed on the world.

Janet.janet., released in May 1993, just a month before I graduated high school, offered up a whole different Miss Jackson. That much was obvious when the first single, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” hit the radio a month and a half earlier. A smooth, seductive groove that had nothing in common with the high energy dance tunes that had been her previous claim to fame, the song caused the jocks on my hometown radio station, New York’s Z-100 (or maybe it was WPLJ-foggy memory…) to liken Janet to Sade. The cover art featured a short and curly-haired Janet giving us serious Marilyn Monroe bedroom eyes, the video found Janet in a black bohemian setting. Sepia-toned, just chillin’, rocking a midriff-baring top and blue jeans. If Madonna was the Mistress of Reinvention, Janet had just out-transformed the Material Girl. For the first time in a decade or so, here was a Jackson that you would actually want to hang out with…a Jackson you would want to…

…be a good boy and put this on…

(ahem.)

And then the album cover. Of course no one knew it until the Rolling Stone cover a couple of months later, but Miss Jackson was topless, with her breasts covered by the lucky hands of Rene Elizondo (her husband at the time, although no one knew it until half a decade later.) Back cover? The sexiest belly button in history. Oh, to be a piece of lint inside that belly button…

Oh, right. The music…

For the record, janet. is not her best album. That honor goes to either Control or Rhythm Nation. janet. is not her most daring album-that would go to its 1997 follow-up, The Velvet Rope. janet. is, however,  her most important album. It’s the album on which Janet truly took the reins, creatively and structurally. Even though her trusty sidekicks Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis remained on board as writers and producers, this was the first project of theirs that felt like a Janet Jackson album, as opposed to a Janet Jam-Lewis album.

The album’s overarching theme is liberation. Freedom. Freedom to be sexually assertive. Freedom to be proud and black. Freedom to kick asshole lovers to the curb. Freedom to tip your hat to your ancestors. Freedom to feature an opera diva on a track and feature Chuck D. of Public Enemy just 15 minutes later. Freedom to fuck on the dance floor if you wanted to. janet. was a coming out party, the likes of which has been imitated many times over the years (Britney Spears’ Britney or In the Zone, Christina’s Stripped, Mariah’s Butterfly, to name a few) but never duplicated.

janet. went on to sell over 7 million copies. It’s the highest-certified studio album of Miss Jackson’s career. The album spun off 7 top 10 pop singles (of the four albums in history that have performed this feat, 3 are by members of the Jackson family. Two are Janet’s.) The remixes were hot (with the most notable being R. Kelly’s silky re-rub of “Any Time, Any Place.” Even the B-sides; a pensive take on brother Randy’s “One More Chance,” the Sly-sampling summer jam “And On & On” and the pillow-talk erotica of “’70s Love Groove,” were hits. In a year when brother Michael was ubiquitous, first for his newfound approachability, then for the accusations made against him that summer, Janet still reigned supreme. In her family, and in pop culture.

Most of all, the music still holds up. “If” starts with guitar feedback over a sample of The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” and turns into a sweaty, sexy dance workout. “Because of Love” and “You Want This” have aged more gracefully than most New Jack Swing. “New Agenda” finds Janet asserting her pride as a Black woman with Chuck D. cheering her on, “Throb” eviscerates all of Madonna’s Erotica (and was instrumental in turning Janet into a gay icon) and “Where Are You Now” out-Michaels Michael. Aside from a sag in the middle (“What’ll I Do” and “Funky Big Band”) and the annoying-as-hell skits, the album remains eminently listenable. And fun, whether you’re dancing to it or boning to it (TMI moment: one of my most triumphant sexual experiences involved “Any Time, Any Place.” It’s like audio Spanish Fly.

Unlike Janet’s future attempts to capitalize on her carnal desires, janet. feels natural. Perhaps that’s why it still sounds so good. So, why not take an hour or so, pop in a CD or cue up Spotify, and take a listen to an album that was just as influential (and as good) as the seminal rock albums that came out around the same time.

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