R&B Junkie: Janet Jackson’s “Damita Jo” Turns 10

Jackson for V Magazine, 2004

Jackson for V magazine, 2004

In the 10 years since its release, Janet Jackson’s eighth LP Damita Jo has become recognized as one of her sterling efforts. It wasn’t always this way.

When it debuted to public consumption in March 2004, it was smothered under the weight of an obstacle that had nothing to do with its music. However, it isn’t accurate to finger the Super Bowl XXXVIII controversy as the sole reason for Damita Jo’s undoing; the age old conundrum of an established icon weathering changing tastes played a part. That said, Jackson’s musical acumen never faltered. Damita Jo was a rarity of creativity found in the veteran stride of an artist who could have coasted, but did not.

The History

When Jackson arrived at what would become the 18 month stretch of recording for Damita Jo, it was after the coalescing All For You (2001) period. This particular record launched a year before Jackson’s official 20th year in popular music―from its hits and accolades, Jackson rode a wave of undiminished popularity.

If one looked closer, the commercial cracks started to show with The Velvet Rope (1997). That LP revealed Jackson as an evolving songwriter, but marked a diminutive decline in her selling power.

The steady chart conquering that began with Control (1986) had begun it smooth descent with the “only” triple platinum procurement of The Velvet Rope Stateside; All For You pulled double platinum. For Jackson, the sales slowing hadn’t affected her overall likability. What had become a concern was Jackson courting a lighter sound with All For You; it alienated Jackson’s core R&B fans that lauded her with those first hits in 1982.

Jackson always held a firm grip on black music and an appeal to a “pop” (white) audience. The trend surfaced that for every black-based recording, Jackson balanced it with a poppier one―see Dream Street (1984), janet. (1993) and All For You. Jackson’s R&B recipe, courtesy of longtime partners James Harris III and Terry Lewis, needed only to be refashioned. Jackson went about resetting her foundation with other motifs for her eighth record.

The Record

Jackson-Harris-&-Lewis were the bedrock for the Damita Jo sessions; they readied to erase the early millennial clumsiness of All For You. The cast of characters brought on board to task alongside Jackson-Harris-&-Lewis promised greatness:  Télépopmusik, Bobby Ross, Iz Avila, Dallas Austin, Cathy Dennis, Kanye West, BAG & Arnthor, Babyface, Scott Storch, Sean Garrett, John Legend and Tony Tolbert.

The personnel came from both sides of the pond, some were experienced and others were green. Excusing failed experiments with (then) current tunesmiths Rich Harrison and Pharrell, the confirmed team labored to reach the prize―an album with a spontaneous, inviting spirit. 

Shot from the "All Nite (Don't Stop)" video

Shot from the “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” video

The LP was unabashedly urban; Jackson dove into saucy hip-hop soul on the first four tracks: “Damita Jo,” “Sexhibition,” “Strawberry Bounce” and “My Baby” (with Kanye West). The brisk quartet mesmerized and hooked the listener into the rest of the record.

There were variegated R&B ballads to choose from with the jazzy sprawl of “Spending Time With You” to the “by-the-numbers” heartache of “Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Ex”. Jackson sang out unflinchingly on “Island Life” and “I Want You”; “I Want You” made lush use of the BT Express rendition of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “(They Long to Be) Close To You”. The thrill came with “All Nite (Don’t Stop),” “SloLove” and “Put Your Hands On” (the latter featured on the Japanese pressing).

The three songs dealt in the “ black fusion” method pioneered by Jody Watley. One of Jackson’s peers, Watley’s pairing of electronic-dance music with R&B on her Saturday Night Experience (1998) and Midnight Lounge (2003) albums was contagious. Whereas the dusk-kissed “SloLove” and “Put Your Hands On” evoked Watley’s theorems, “All Nite’s” lifting of Herbie Hancock’s riff from “Hang Up Your Hang Up’s” gave funky contrast to its Euro-tracked beat. Toss in the additional percussive frippery, you had Jackson at her most chemically potent.

Throughout the nouveau and throwback soul―“R&B Junkie” was a fierce uppercut of post-disco dance―ironically, Jackson recorded one of her prime pop jams with the kinky “Just a Little While”. Its assertive (guitar) lick and melody made the song irresistible.

The record title, Jackson’s middle name, stood to platform the “many characters” that lived within her―and in turn, all of her listeners. By now, Jackson’s “guarded intimacy” was her thematic compass, it informed the lyrics of the album.

The album’s mood alternated from attitudinal to vulnerable, sexual to sensual. In most cases it worked, see two of the five interludes (“Looking For Love,” “Country”) and the album-sides “Like You Don’t Love Me” and “I’m Here” (also appearing on the Japanese pressing). Swinging back to “Strawberry Bounce,” listen for Jackson’s “reversal of a dog” mantra: “I’ll do a tease to bring you to your knees, now you know that pimpin’ ain’t easy!”―“Strawberry Bounce” was post-modern black feminism through a hip-hop lens.

Only “Warmth” approached the forceful parody of All For You’s “Would You Mind”; it was rumored that Jackson wanted to turn the heat up further for the LP. However, as the record neared its completion in early 2004, Damita Jo―though gleefully carnal―wasn’t vulgar.

The Impact

Single cover for "Just a Little While"

Single cover for “Just a Little While”

Jackson hurriedly filmed the music video, rarely seen, for the leaked lead single “Just a Little While”. The song was officially let loose on 2/2/04, the day after Jackson headlined the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show on 2/1/04.

Much like her brother Michael’s performance a decade earlier, Jackson promised excellence for the stage; her electricity during the actual show she put on isn’t remembered unfortunately. Fresh off his solo debut Justified (2002), Justin Timberlake was added to the closing section of Jackson’s set. Timberlake―who had used his association with Jackson to assist in his transition from ★NSYNC to urban-pop upstart―sang his charter “Rock Your Body” with Jackson as the temporary “hook girl”. The faux reveal at the song’s conclusion ended up as an accidental exposure of Jackson’s right breast; the fallout out was swiftly fatal to Jackson.

Timberlake distanced himself from his “friend” and “Just a Little While” was unwelcome across American airwaves. The single fared better Stateside on the dance chart and internationally: U.S. #45, U.S. Dance #1, U.K. #15, AU #20, Canada #3.

The cultural ripples carried on for the remainder of the decade as any general Google search will attest. The fate of Damita Jo itself might have felt trifle in comparison, but it beheld the doom that awaited Jackson. MTV’s stake in the Halftime Show led to the “blackout” against Jackson that lasted through the length of the Damita Jo project until 2008. This played a significant role in the album being unseen and unheard when delivered.

Damita Jo appeared worldwide on 3/30/04. Overnight, Jackson’s sexuality, that had been a staple for a decade, was now a tasteless promotional tool for her album―an untrue exaggeration that took on a larger than life nastiness.

Two scathing review excerpts from Britain’s The Observer (written by Kitty Empire) on Damita Jo displayed (new) disdain toward Jackson’s sexuality:

Jackson’s priapic pestering does get a bit much on Damita Jo. Yes, you are very sexy, you feel like reassuring Jackson. Now run along. It may be unfair to Janet, but we would prefer not to be reminded that any member of the Jackson clan has a libido, considering the controversy her brother Michael is embroiled in.

The returned R&B edge wasn’t spared either…

Her album pronouncements vary from typically Jacksonian mumbo-jumbo about how all of us are looking for love, to more Prince-like doggerel about how: ‘The one is the breath we breathe, The one is love”. Really, for all this talk of love and lubrication, Janet Jackson is rather more in need of a bucket of cold water.

There were voices of reason―noted feminist and writer Ann Powers summed up Damita Jo in Blender as thus:

Artfully structured, unapologetically explicit, Damita Jo is erotica at its friendliest and most well-balanced. Jackson brings bliss back to a subject that too many dirty-mouthed hotties have made tedious through overexposure.

Chart fortunes for Damita Jo were strong in the beginning: U.S. Billboard 200 #2, U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop #2, Canada #7, Japan #10, ARIA #18, U.K. #32. As the album moved further into 2004, it lost steam at home and abroad. Two singles continued the fight for Damita Jo―“I Want You” (2/29/04)-U.S. R&B #19, U.S. #57, U.K. #19 / “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” (4/27/04)-U.S. Dance #1, U.S. R&B #90, U.S. Mainstream Top 40 #33, U.K. #19.

Dignified through it all, Jackson did the rounds to rally support for Damita Jo. Inexplicably―her label home since 1993―Virgin Records quietly backed away from the LP.

“I Want You”

Directed By: Dave Meyers

Final tallies for Damita Jo allocated platinum (America, Canada), gold (Japan) and silver (United Kingdom) awards; Damita Jo marked Jackson’s last album to have clout on an international level. The last breath for the LP was taken with  “R&B Junkie” receiving the “promotional single” treatment in December 2004. By that time, the LP had been laid to rest by all parties involved.

The mercantile blow was apparent, but this had been coming. As previously said, Jackson’s stalling sales were active. Whether it had been Damita Jo or the record afterwards, it was an unavoidable conclusion. Seemingly minuscule to its commercial failure, “I Want You” (certified platinum in the States) and Damita Jo received Grammy nods in 2005.

Looking beyond the consequences of the Super Bowl, Jackson had to contend with rising competition (Beyoncé, Ciara, Britney Spears, etc.). Culture thrives on change and even those that adapt won’t remain an immediate figure forever.

What was tragic was that the Super Bowl incident catalyzed, violently, the shift that was looming for Jackson with catastrophic results to her persona in the public’s eye. Additionally, there’s a forgotten flaw in the R&B crossover matrix―once the mainstream (white) audience has had their “fill,” they’re finished. Janet Jackson was no different.

Thankfully, Jackson was ever the definition of grace under fire; her two primary bases never forsook her: R&B and dance. Jackson’s next two LPs, 20 Y.O. (2006) and Discipline (2008), held footing with them.

Jackson reached her second (and final) creative crowning with this album. For an artist that arrived at her doyen march with Damita Jo’s predecessor, no one expected Jackson to best The Velvet Rope in musical execution, if not lyrical composition.

Working with proven and untested sounds, Jackson’s coup of a record that was classic and challenging was anomalous. Regardless of the circumstances that surrounded it, that shouldn’t go unremembered. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: Damita Jo is in print, digitally and physically, in original and edited formats; “I’m Here” and “Put Your Hands On” can be found on the Japanese version. For current information on Janet Jackson, visit her official website.-QH]

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13 Comments

Filed under Pop, R&B

13 responses to “R&B Junkie: Janet Jackson’s “Damita Jo” Turns 10

  1. Beautifully written — and very insightful as to why this strong album never took off. I remember hearing “Just A Little While” several times in the wake of the Super Bowl debacle, and I was never convinced it was the right rush-release — there’s a harshness to the song that I just never warmed to. I don’t think anything could have saved DAMITA JO after the Super Bowl, but perhaps having “All Night (Don’t Stop)” or “SloLove” immediately serviced to radio/video outlets could have softened the blow slightly. I still count “I Want You” as one of Janet’s shining moments as a recording artist, and it’s a rare instance of the Grammys really doing right by a nomination. Once again — you’re exhaustive research and attention to details really shows here. Now I can’t wait to get home and listen to this great album again!

  2. I really enjoyed your take on the Damita Jo era. It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years already.

  3. As always, you did it again, Q.

    EXCELLENT piece.

    A very insightful look not only into a specific period in Ms. Jackson’s lengthy career or even the release and reaction of the “Damita Jo”, in particular, but a look into the fickleness of the music industry, racial/cultural politics that influence a “crossover” artist’s popularity and the ups and downs of artistic evolution.

    Again, great job.

  4. Gene 'Scott' Ebeling

    When one thinks of talent we equate the name Jackson to beyond talented. I’ve always loved the music of the J5 growing up, then one day back in 1986 I had discovered Janet. What Michael was to his adoring fans, Janet was to me. Your piece is well thought out, well written, and ultimately right on point! I especially love the analogy you used for ‘Strawberry Bounce’. ‘Damita Jo’ is still one of my favorite Janet albums to date. Once the next album ’20 Y.O.’ dropped in ’06 I was really reinvigorated with Janet all over again. Then as they say, when she put out ‘Discipline’ in ’08, she put the baby to sleep! I listen to the three in succession, and can honestly say my Compact Discs have groves from being played so much! I hope you will continue with your next Janet project on it’s 10th Anniversary too? (20 Y.O. is the still my absolute favorite Janet CD, EVER)! But as I’ve lamented I usually listen to all three. I love how ‘Damita Jo’ took JDJJ to a new place , then ’20 Y.O.’ carried it even higher, with ‘Discipline’ being the greatest closing act. Whatever the future holds for Janet Jackson musically, it’s safe to say, I will be the first in line to pick up her new music, or be blowing up my Amazon prime with pre-orders.

  5. A lot of people who’ve heard All Nite on my iPod go “whoa, what’s this song? It’s great!!”. My dad also praised the album once I played it fully in the car, he especially loved “SloLove”. And what can I say, I obviously love the album… but there are some songs I can live without (Damita Jo, Sexhibition, Like You Don’t Love Me, Warmth and Moist). I’m totally crazy for the other ones!

  6. Rafael Vitola

    Awesome piece! Damita Jo is probably my favourite album from Janet. It’s just kinda sad you didn’t mention Moist 😦 I think it’s a fascinating song!

  7. Jen (Audio Diva)

    Wow. This is a fantastic and well-thought out piece, Q! Seriously, you hit every nail on the head on why this album is grossly ignored and why it musically put Janet in a nice position for yet another transition in her career. I remember the time this came out VERY clearly. In high school I was in theater and it was during our UIL season, and I was bumping the mess outta this album during rehearsals. Everyone in my drama troupe including my drama teacher were loving it, and wondering why Janet “needed to do the pub stunt” when she had this hot album. That time was tough for me as I was also a HUGE Justin Timberlake fan, and him throwing my big sister in head, Janet under the bus was pretty damn traumatic for me, lol. But spot on about the gross mishandling of this, right down to mentioning the racism and sexism that ensued. I still shudder over how at one time people lauded Janet’s sexual frankness and overnight they were labeling her a “whore”.

    Still in some way, aside from “the incident”, I kind of blame “I Want You” and “Just A Little While” being pushed first instead of “All Night, Don’t Stop”. “All Night” just had classic written all over it. If I had had my way, “All Night” would’ve been first then the Kanye West guest spotted “My Baby” next since he was gaining traction then, followed by “I Want You”. Still I love a lot of cuts off of this from “All Night”, to “Slolove”, “Island Life”, “Put Your Hands On”, “I Want You”, and of course “R&B Junkie” for using that killer Evelyn Champagne King sample. Just a really solid album that has never left rotation for me after all these ten (!) years. Thanks for reminding of why I like this album so much!

    I sung your praises for this piece over at my blog, just as an FYI 🙂

  8. penntx

    I agree with a great deal of the assessment of the album. But I think Damita Jo was poised to serve something else. Fundamentally, I think it is important to remember how Janet came into prominence. Control. That album was born from a label founded by Herb Alpert. It was a label that initially served to find talent that was a little off from mainstream (see Sting and the Police, Sergio Mendez, Cat Stevens). It was far away from being a mainstream label company, becoming the largest independent label in the 1970s/80s. And that album was born from a space created by the executive production of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for Janet to just really express her mind. This ultimately became the important factor for every Janet album to come. Yes, some albums were created for the purpose of breakthrough or commercial success (see Contol and All for You). Others weren’t necessarily.

    That leads of Damita Jo. Thematically, conceptually, sonically, Damita Jo was Janet’s love album. The album that showed all the different parts of her that seemed to be unified by the new-found euphoria from a new-found love. In the press during the year leading up to Damita Jo, it was publicized that Janet was drawing inspiration from ambient electronica that defined EDM, Zero 7 and Telepopmusik. And that resonates on the album. The sonic feel of a light, airiness that communicates the mellow euphoria of love, sex, and blissful peace of a soul yearning for the love, now free to roam. That’s what makes Damita Jo so special, so vital, and so loved. Beautifully sonic and free celebratory.

    With that being said, Damita Jo does not feel like it was conceived with the intent to be a commercial powerhouse. (see The Velvet Rope.)

    The disappointment clearly lies in that it was released in the aftermath of the Superbowl fallout. And with that, nothing short of a clear commercial powerhouse would flounder. That’s the true heartbreak of Damita Jo. It was the album that could have poised Janet into the direction of the penultimate electronic-infused rhythm and blues artist, a female crooner and arbitor of love. I remember many of the few positive reviews of the album described the album as “truly mature pop seduction.” If you look at Discipline, it is constructed more to be a electronic pop album that mirrored what was going in 2007 (see Chris Brown, Rihanna, and Ne-Yo). And yet I feel Janet probably would have been there earlier if she didn’t diverge to put out, 20YO.

    And yet as awesome and free-flowing as it was, that is why Damita Jo will feel like Janet’s lost album. I’ve realized that that album expressed that to me. But yet that free feel is so wonderful to get lost in. It felt that way in 2004 and feels that way in 2014. And with all the vastness of the current music landscape, there is no one around that can do that. I guess that means Janet is truly that R&B chanteuse. And I foresee that that “lost album” will have a new life in pop culture in the future for people to really “get lost in.”

  9. John

    I think another issue that isn’t really touched apon here is that Damita Jo also started to highlight a decline in Janet’s vocals. From Damita Jo onwards, Janets vocals have seemed to get breathier and lighter with each release. Portions of vocals are close to indecipherable, in comparison to Control or Rhythm Nation. This seemed to get even worse with 20YO. However there is still plenty to enjoy on Damita Jo.

    • I totally disagree. Janet had some of her most pronounced vocals on this set (“Island Life,” “I Want You,” “Just a Little While,” I’m Here” ) and arguably its follow-up was her vocal showcase. “20 Y.O.” bore some of her most athletic vocals on “Get It Out Me,” “Do It 2 Me,” “Enjoy,” “Days Go By”. I’d recommend going back & really listening to these albums versus buying into the myth that people perpetuate. Especially considering people turn a blind eye to songs like “If,” pre-“Damita Jo,” where no one can sing a lick of anything but the chorus. #KnowYourJanet

  10. Pingback: The QH Blend’s Class of 2004 | theqhblend

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