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#BounceSkateandRock: An Overview of Janet Jackson on Blogcritics

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My essay on Janet Jackson’s complete discography is up for reading now on Blogcritics, where it was first published. To celebrate the return of the R&B legend, look back with me across the 10 albums that built Jackson’s legacy from the ground up. Keep in mind, this freelance gig was a one-time deal as I’m still busy with preparation for my book currently. More details on that next month.-QH

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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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