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Kylie Minogue’s “Where Is the Feeling?” Turns 20 on Blogcritics

Kylie Minogue, circa 1995

Kylie Minogue, circa 1995

My interview with Dave Seaman and Steve Andersonformerly known as the production duo Brothers in Rhythmis up for reading now at Blogcritics, where it was first published. The gentlemen recall and celebrate “Where Is the Feeling?”Minogue’s third single from her fifth album, Kylie Minogue (1994).

The single has always been a bit of a mystery and is often misplaced in Minogue’s discography; Seaman and Anderson detail its creation and legacy 20 years after its release. Make sure to check it out!

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The QH Blend’s “Q Sounds” Vol. 2

QSoundFebruary

Q Sounds for February 2015

Music is my lifeblood and as a writer about its culture, I need it―all the time. Whether scanning aisles in new or used music shops or spying on Amazon, I’m always buying and listening to new music. This format will allow me to capture what music I’ve bought each month and detail it for you, the readers. The three records highlighted will hopefully catch your attention and you’ll follow the purchase links included. Enjoy.

Made in America

Made in America

Artist: Carpenters

Album: Made in America (1981, A&M)

Personnel: Karen Carpenter (lead / background vocals / percussion); Richard Carpenter (arranger / background vocals / producer)

Production Duties: Richard Carpenter

Vibe: Three years and a bevy of changes―personal and professional―had transpired since the Carpenters last full-length LP, Passage (1977). Made in America combined familiarity and (soft) acknowledgement of new trends present at the dawn of the 1980’s. Synthesizers were tastefully layered throughout parts of the recording, giving a touch of color to “(Want You) Back in My Life Again” and lead single “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”.

Deeper listening revealed a latent funkiness present on these numbers that could be traced backed to the aforementioned Passage album opener “B’wana She No Home”. Further, Karen’s aborted eponymous solo debut from 1980―thankfully released in 1996―informed the cool rhythmic approach the brother / sister duo weaved into Made in America.

Additional exploration of this urban pastel style might have given Made in America the “edge” to validate the Carpenters in critics eyes. Many detractors then felt that the Carpenters were not progressing far enough in their recorded output―even with the stated diminutive modernity present. Regardless, Made in America captured that classic Carpenters pop at its cinematic best. Richard’s score-like arrangements sprawled majestically on “Somebody’s Been Lyin'” and “Because We Are in Love (The Wedding Song)”. Both songs housed Karen’s impeccable tone wonderfully.

The latter song was a “happy ending” piece that called to mind Karen’s girl-to-woman transformation completed through ultimate romantic fulfillment. The eventual fact outweighed the fiction unfortunately, but did not remove the magic apparent on that cut or the remainder of Made in America’s contents.

A sharp spinner full of promise, potential and a sense of nostalgia, the Carpenters brand of sentimental pop never sounded better than it did on Made in America.

Watch / Listen: “Touch Me When We’re Dancing

Purchase here

Seventh Tree

Seventh Tree

Artist: Goldfrapp

Album: Seventh Tree (2008, Mute / EMI)

Personnel: Alison Goldfrapp (lead vocals / background vocals / producer); Will Gregory (producer)

Production Duties: Mark “Flood” Ellis, Goldfrapp

Vibe: Goldfrapp’s Supernature (2005 / 2006), their junior effort, stood as one of the defining records of its decade. Their second (mostly) full-blown uptempo album after Black Cherry (2003) had distilled their sexy dance-pop to perfection. Where else could this pair―Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory―venture to now? For Goldfrapp, they peered back to the beginning; rather than resurrect their blitzkrieg blend of classical and electronic music that gripped Felt Mountain (2000), they dialed back. The folky air that permeated Seventh Tree may have disappointed at first listen.

The patient were rewarded with an album whose amber and gold hues charmed. Whereas the orchestral works of Felt Mountain were often marred by belching “bleeps” and “bloops,” here the strings were totally unobstructed. However, the stark violin work that characterized Black Cherry and Supernature was exchanged on Seventh Tree by a blend of violins and acoustic guitars. This musical marriage birthed atmospheric backdrops for “Clowns” and “A&E”.

Lyrically, Goldfrapp had always leaned on voyeurism versus crafting songs about themselves. That did not change on Seventh Tree, even if the stories behind songs such as “Eat Yourself” and “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” read as obtuse when introduced.

Forbearance was a virtue for previous fans of Goldfrapp’s preceding trio of recordings, but their music never felt more refreshing. Seventh Tree played as a portent for their lauded Tales of Us (2013) album, though its homogeneity placed it second behind the broader brightness of Seventh Tree.

Watch / Listen: “Happiness

Purchase here

Super Critical

Super Critical

Artist: The Ting Tings

Album: Super Critical (2014 / 2015, Finca)

Personnel: Jules De Martino (background vocals / lead guitar / drums / bass guitar / piano); Katie White (lead vocals / bass drums /bass  guitar / guitar)

Production Duties: Jules De Martino, Andy Taylor

Vibe: Immediate darlings upon their arrival with We Started Nothing (2008), The Ting Tings were the hottest alt-pop pairing on the scene. Their flavorful follow-up, Sounds From Nowheresville (2012), did not receive as much affection upon its unveiling. De Martino and White stepped back and decided to retool their approach for their third project. Assisted by temperamental (and former) Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, Super Critical benefited from a groove oriented focus without relinquishing good hooks.

When their lead single “Wrong Club” impacted, lazy commentators accused The Ting Tings of jumping on the disco revival “spearheaded” by Daft Punk and Pharrell in the last two years―this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Many previous disco resurrections had occurred before 2012, noticeably at the beginning of the last decade.

The Ting Tings dancefloor retrofit mined that unpretentious epoch’s feel with the flashy frippery of the title song and the mentioned cut “Wrong Club”. “Wrong Club,” in spite of its addictive floor filling pace, possessed that acerbic wit that made the pair’s songwriting angle so much fun on prior outings.

As the listener descended further into the LP, the beats stayed plentiful (“Do It Again,” “Communication”). The Ting Tings even saved space for a juicy 1990’s R&B throwback in “Wabi Sabi”. It’s a testament to De Martino and White’s abilities that they stood toe-to-toe with superstar Taylor throughout the LP. Once the album wrapped, at just nine tracks, Super Critical showed The Ting Tings far from ready to be relegated to the hipster band bargain bin.

Watch / Listen: “Wrong Club

Purchase here

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Easy Breezy: Hikaru Utada’s “Exodus” Turns 10

"Devil Inside" single cover

“Devil Inside” single cover

“I don’t think it’s the music I’m concerned about. It’s obviously that I look really different and there really aren’t any completely Asian people who are popular singers in the U.S. right now”.

Hikaru Utada (宇多田 ヒカル) made this remark around the unveiling of Exodus, her fourth LP. It was Utada’s attempt at penetrating the Western music marketplace after five years of dominance in the EastExodus was never destined for a charmed existence, but Utada was aware of the cultural uphill battle awaiting her album―she didn’t flinch. Utada, then 21, continued on the progressive track of Exodus’ preceding album, Deep River (2002). Exodus was dense, dark and delicious; the album challenged the conventional pop groupthink prominent at the first half of the 2000’s.

Utada was no shrinking violet and Exodus was an uncompromising work that sought to satisfy her own artistic appetites, but somehow appeal to the fickle American pop populace. A decade removed from its release, Exodus retains its charismatic position in Utada’s discography.

The History

The product of two accomplished musicians, Utada was born in New York City, New York in 1983. As a young girl, Utada jetted between Tokyo and New York City due to her parents work commitments―Utada became bilingual very quickly. Language wouldn’t be the only thing imprinted on Utada, she bathed in the cultures of America and Japan.

It was no surprise that Utada took to music and exhibited childlike prodigy traits. Songwriting her penchant, Utada inked a deal with Toshibi EMI who dropped her first major label record Precious (1996). She worked under the pseudonym “Cubic U,” a play on being the “third power” in the Utada family; the record was sung in English and written by a 13 year-old Utada. The album appeared in America and Japan on 1/28/98 and made no headway.

Undaunted, Utada fine-tuned her skills in arranging and producing. A year later, her real debut First Love (1999) caused a sensation in Japan. From 1999 through 2004, Utada monopolized the Japanese music scene with First Love and its followers Distance (2001), Deep River (2002) and Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004)**. Amid her hectic promotional schedule, Utada married her first husband Kazuaki Kiriya (15 years her senior). She also attended Columbia University briefly on a break from recording. In that same span of time, Utada recorded two songs in English for a film (‘Rush Hour 2’) and a video game (“Kingdom Hearts”).

Alternate shot from the Exodus photo shoot

Alternate shot from the Exodus photo shoot

The former, entitled “Blow My Whistle,” had Utada alongside The Neptunes and Foxy Brown; “Blow My Whistle” wouldn’t have been out of place on any of her first three recordings.

The latter, “Simple and Clean,” was a reworking of an established hit single from Deep River, “Hikari” (“Light”). The ethereal appeal of “Simple and Clean” created an immediate cult following, notably in America. Inspired by this, Utada decided again to record an album in English. However, Utada’s soundprint was turning toward something mercurial. Beginning with tentative steps on portions of Deep River, Utada experimented with ethereal wave, dream pop and classical music. All of these things coalesced on “COLORS,” the lone original recording on Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004). “COLORS” pointed to a moodier sonic space where the seeds of Exodus were sewn and cultivated.

The Record

Looking past the A&R maneuver to include “input” from Timbaland and his protegee Nate “Danja” Hills on two tracks (“Exodus ’04” and “Let Me Give You My Love”), Exodus was handled by Utada. There was an occasional contribution from her father Teruzane, working under the guise of “Sking U”.

Voyeurism acted as a central theme to the execution of Exodus. Even when Utada wrote about herself―“You Make Me Want to Be a Man” explored tension in her own marriage at the time―there was a distance. Utada seemed to want to step outside of herself here.

Musically, her previously three LPs dabbled in electronic music whereas Exodus wore its stormy electronic temper on its sleeve. The genre transformed throughout the course of Exodus’ playing time. Utada was tribal (“Devil Inside”), she smacked on arcade bubblegum (“Easy Breezy”) and manicured a post-prog-rock symphonic dirge (“Kremlin Dusk”).

The beats weren’t necessarily unfriendly, the bulk of them passed for clubby chic with a casual listen. But the fashionable surfaces of “Tippy Toe” and “Hotel Lobby” hid gloomier tales of infidelity and prostitution, topics not normally associated with pop. The most approachable song on Exodus was “Easy Breezy”. To the attentive listener, the song contained a tongue-in-cheek poke at American men’s ideas of Asian women (“You’re easy breezy and I’m Japan-easy…”) and one of the better phallic references ever written (“She’s gotta new microphone, she doesn’t need you anymore!”).

For the first time, Eastern flourishes were present in Utada’s output. Was Utada giving English listeners what they expected? Maybe, but in true Utada style there was an “in on what you think of me” air. Exodus poised itself to be the next enthralling chapter of this young woman’s journey.

Hikaru Utada, circa 2004

Hikaru Utada, circa 2004

The Impact

Still signed with Toshibi EMI, Utada inked a deal with Island / Def Jam for Exodus Stateside. Mercury Records handled bringing the album to British ears in 2005.

Exodus debuted in Japan on 9/8/04, 10/5/04 in America and 9/25/05 in England. Four singles were culled from the project over the two year period: “Easy Breezy” (8/3/04), “Devil Inside” (9/14/04), “Exodus ’04” (6/21/05) and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man” (10/17/05).

While the record landed no hits on the Oricon Single Charts**, a first for Utada, Exodus did become the biggest selling foreign language album in Japan’s history. Exodus found a healthy life on all the Oricon Album Charts: weekly (#1), monthly (#1) and yearly (#6). The album shifted a million units and was awarded gold status; another success story for Utada.

Stateside it was a different, if not unexpected, story. In lieu of a diminutive campaign, Exodus placed at #160 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart; the record ended up selling 55,000 copies. Utada’s statement of being the first Asian singer to really reach out to American listeners had proved correct. She was an untested commodity and even with her clout abroad, the notoriously regimented U.S. radio formats couldn’t find a space for Utada.

With that said, the American clubs took to “Devil Inside”: U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #1, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales #5, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Airplay #10. Only two music videos were shot out of the four singles selected from Exodus: “Easy Breezy” and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man”. “You Make Me Want to Be a Man,” the only single to represent Utada in Britain a year later, fed her growing fanbase but didn’t cause a commotion: U.K. #227.

Critically, the album was greeted with positive reception. Andy Kellman of All Music Guide remarked of Exodus:

As the child of Japanese musicians who reside in both New York City and Tokyo, Utada Hikaru was perhaps predestined for a career as a performer informed by multiculturalism. On her first major-label English-language album, Utada delivers a diverse collection of urbane, modern, and, at times, almost avant-garde electronica and dance music.

“Easy Breezy”

Directed By: Jake Nava

Even as Exodus rescinded when Utada went onto her next LP, its effects lingered. The album was second in a three-part evolutionary trip that started with Deep River and ended with Ultra Blue (2006). All three albums had Utada pushing herself as far she could go and created one of the best back-to-back album stretches in popular music. Much of the material from Exodus Utada performed live on the tours Utada United (2006) and Utada: In the Flesh (2010).

Remarking of the record in 2009, Utada said: “Exodus was a very experimental album. I was like a mad scientist working away in an underground laboratory. I had the time of my life but it was a very intense, introverted process”.

Exodus might have been too powerful to make non-familiars comfortable with its sound. It does speak to Utada’s integrity that she would not eschew her music’s momentum to appease anyone. Utada bravely invited the uninitiated into her world, thus making her most introverted recording extroverted by sharing it. Risk is always worth the reward and as Hikaru Utada’s catalogue attests, that can never be a bad thing. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: **―Oricon Charts are the Japanese equivalent of our own Billboard charts. They split their album charts into three sections as seen in the essay. The Japanese often precede their first name with their last name. Exodus is available through any physical and digital music retailer. For current information on Hikaru Utada, please visit her official site.-QH]

 

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Jody Watley Visits “Paradise” on Her New EP

Cover to Jody Watley's Paradise EP

Cover to Jody Watley’s Paradise EP

She’s back again, though to the initiated Jody Watley never left. The Queen of Cool’s Paradise EP is her return to music since her last ambitious undertaking,  2006 / 2009’s The Makeover.

Watley’s R&B has always been progressive and the arc of Paradise is no different from Watley’s past endeavors―somewhat. This time, Watley exchanges the electronically charged rhythm and blues from her last three records with a classic / contemporary fusion of disco. Understand, this isn’t your little brother’s hipster disco, nor is it just a retroactive Shalamar redux. Paradise melds elements of the aforementioned disco genre from today and yesterday.

Horns announce the lead single “Nightlife”; the song’s beat whacks and whips in a modern way, ensuring her dominance of the dancefloor in 2014. The energy levels don’t dissipate after “Nightlife,” they keep hustling on the multi-layered Los Angeles funk of “Dancer”. It’s here that Watley’s commitment to quality is made clear with her longtime producer (and friend) Rodney Lee co-piloting Paradise. Thanks to Watley, Lee and Co., Paradise maintains its bright exterior with heart from a production standpoint.

Vocally and lyrically Watley still has it with her integrity colored escapism―see the MdCL remix of “Tonight’s the Night”. “Sanctuary” and the CD exclusive cut “Everlasting” steal the spotlight on Paradise though. Both songs capture the slippery sensuality that made “Still a Thrill,” “I Want You” and “Whenever…” classics. Watley’s lowlit tones imbue these calmer tracks with an enthralling presence.

“Nightlife” (Dave Doyle Remix)

Directed By: Ray Easmon, Jody Watley, Steve Willis

The only real sticking point with this project is that there isn’t more. This sonic avenue definitely would have lent itself to an album’s span. While you could never accuse her of being shy on previous platters, this recording finds Watley dancefloor bound like never before. The new EP will assuredly appreciate in value like much in this R&B icon’s versatile discography. Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: Paradise is available at most digital music outlets; the CD is exclusively sold through Jody Watley’s own online boutique. For details on Paradise, Jody Watley and her current affairs, visit her official site.-QH]

 

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Jennifer Lopez: The Road to “A.K.A”

Lopez in 'Billboard Magazine,' 2014.

Lopez for Billboard, 2014

As with the best in the field of pop, Jennifer Lopez became an unexpected heroine of that said movement. Appearing in 1999 alongside the likes of Britney Spears and Hikaru Utada―two women who redefined pop across a decade very differently―Lopez’s flavorful, but predictable spice didn’t feel lasting.

Fifteen years later, Lopez’s music generates conversation as much as her acting career and other entertainment endeavors.

There have been victories and defeats, many of those definitions subjective when asking certain segments of her base.

On the eve of her eighth studio player A.K.A (Capitol), The QH Blend takes a quick look back at Lopez’s previous platters―the exceptional and the dismal. The QH Blend’s review on A.K.A. will follow this entry sometime tomorrow.

On the 6

On the 6

On the 6 (1999, Epic)

Singles: “If You Had My Love,” “No Me Ames,” “Waiting for Tonight,” “Feelin’ So Good,” “Let’s Get Loud”

Synopsis: In hindsight, On the 6 was an unassuming starting point for this actress who held an ambition to become a pop vocalist. The singles were professional and pitched between the Latin fascination of 1999 and that millennial cusp of dance, R&B, hip-hop and pop. “Waiting for Tonight” stands as one of Lopez’s most authoritative (and lovely) vocals committed; “Let’s Get Loud” remains as tacky as it was then unfortunately. The album fare was decent enough (“Should’ve Never,” “Open Off My Love” ), but felt secondary to the sheer power of “If You Had My Love” and the aforementioned “Waiting for Tonight”.

 

J.Lo

J.Lo

J.Lo (2001, Epic)

Singles: “Love Don’t Cost a Thing,” “Play,” “Ain’t It Funny,” “I’m Real”

Synopsis: Lopez’s predecessor Paula Abdul rectified the dreaded “singles vehicle” tag with her second LP, 1991’s Spellbound. There, Abdul cut hits and non-singles that showed that she could charm throughout an entire album. In that regard, Lopez’s second album felt like a step back and forward jointly. A fantastic singles project, J.Lo had Lopez wielding a variety of pop weaponry in “Play” (Euro-dance funk) and “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” (neo-freestyle).

The two remaining singles (“Ain’t It Funny,” “I’m Real“) found new life in hip-hop-pop skins later in 2001 through the now defunct Murder Inc. empire―see J to Tha L―O! The Remixes (2002, Epic) for details.  The remainder of J.Lo played as an afterthought in the wake of more films and endorsement deals; as a result, J.Lo is Lopez’s weakest offering still.

 

This Is Me...Then

This Is Me…Then

This is Me…Then (2002, Epic)

Singles: “Jenny From the Block,” “All I Have,” “I’m Glad,” “Baby I ♥ U”

Synopsis: At the critical mass of her popular culture summit, Lopez released her first artistic statement. The record was a gorgeous latticework of adult pop tempered with Lopez’s obvious affections to the music that informed her Bronx youth. Stepping forward vocally (“You Belong to Me,” originally by Carly Simon), lyrically (“I’ve Been Thinkin’”) and musically (“Again”) Lopez had flexed her creative muscles. It didn’t hurt that she landed her first definitive single in the process, the minty cool of “Jenny From the Block”. The cut dovetailed between irony and reality, suggesting a clever mind behind those pretty eyes. The album was also home to one of her most unsung singles thus far, the lush “I’m Glad”.

 

Rebirth

Rebirth

Rebirth (2005, Epic)

Singles: “Get Right,” “Hold You Down”

Synopsis: Clearly a holding pattern,  Rebirth was a hodge podge of previous Lopez incarnations. There was the hit that called this LP home (“Get Right” ) and there were a host of other songs relegated to album tracks that deserved the single treatment (“Whatever You Wanna Do,” “Cherry Pie”). In all, Rebirth didn’t recreate anything versus just reprise certain ideas in a sharper context.

In particular, “(Can’t Believe) This Is Me” felt glaringly out of place in the midst of the other contemporary urban-pop stock on the record. It would find its space on Lopez’s next recording, one of her biggest musical gambles ever.

 

Como Ama una Mujer

Como Ama una Mujer

Como Ama una Mujer (2007, Epic)

Singles: “Qué Hiciste,” “Me Haces Falta”

Synopsis: The translation of the album title reads as “How a woman loves” . For Lopez it was an apt description, she had come into her own as a vocalist that held more shades of expression than anyone had realized. From the melancholia of “Sola” or the rushing passion of the lead single “Qué Hiciste,”  Lopez had arrived at a new era in what her music could do. Though many critics guffawed at Lopez’s attempt at a quieter recording, she steadied on and the album earned hearty sales internationally.

The previously mentioned “(Can’t Believe) This Is Me” that felt painfully out of place on Rebirth was recast as “Porque Te Marchas”―it fit right in on this cinematic beauty of an album.

 

Brave

Brave

Brave (2007, Epic)

Singles: “Do It Well,” “Hold It Don’t Drop It”

Synopsis: Released several months after Como Ama una Mujer, Lopez transported her ambition from that project across to this one. An album free of production ego―meaning the producer constructed the backdrop and allowed Lopez to bring it to life on her own―made Brave one of her most pleasurable plays. It was also the third album in Lopez’s catalogue to be solid from back to front. Opening with the salty-and-sweet snap of “Stay Together” and closing with the fragile titular track, Lopez mesmerized with strong performances throughout Brave.

The two singles earmarked from this release also had Lopez in her zone; “Hold It Don’t Drop It” showcased Lopez strutting alongside a sample of “It Only Takes a Minute” by Tavares as if she was born to do it. Sadly, the record stalled with a broader audience and has since become something of a lost gem.

 

Love?

Love?

Love? (2011, Island / Def Jam)

Singles: “On the Floor,” “I’m Into You,” “Papi”

Synopsis: The long, painful road to Lopez’s first post-Epic Records album was frustrating when the product finally emerged. After the sabotaged “Fresh Out of the Oven”―one of Lopez’s more interesting songs―Lopez went straight for the chart coin with the bulk of this album. While always chart conscious to a degree, she had previously displayed an ability to toggle between that ambition and adventurous territory.

The singles were perfunctory with “On the Floor” becoming the chartbuster of the trio released from Love?. The album material ranked as her worst since J.Lo; none of the growth exercised over the two LPs that preceded Love? appeared here. There were two convincing moments on Love? though: “Good Hit” and “(What Is) Love?” were winks to her engaging pop of yore.

[Editor’s Note: Only Lopez’s labels were featured in the piece due to its focus on her. All of the discussed recordings are in print, physically & digitally. For more information on Jennifer Lopez, visit her official site.-QH]

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Kim Wilde’s “Teases & Dares” Turns 30 on Blogcritics

Kim Wilde, circa 1984

Kim Wilde, circa 1984

My essay on Kim Wilde’s fourth long player, Teases & Dares (1984), is up for reading now at Blogcritics, where it was first published. Celebrating Wilde’s MCA Records debut, which had her further court synth-pop and dance music, I peer into one of her most beloved recordings. Make sure to check it out!

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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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