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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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The QH Blend’s “100 @ 30”: [21 thru 40]

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Janet Jackson (21) / Diana Ross (22) / Gloria Estefan (23) / Solange (24) / Paula Abdul (25)

20 Y.O. (Virgin, 2006): Control (1986) or Damita Jo (2004) easily could have made this list.  But 20 Y.O.’s veteran precision was just too strong to ignore. It was a great vocal showcase in Jackson’s discography―it didn’t hurt that the first half of the album was black dance music done to the nines. Despite its silly title, this was adult R&B with a pinch of youthful spirit.

The Boss (Motown, 1979):  Dress rehearsal for diana (1980)? I think not. Ross’ second-to-last Motown album had her slip into disco with soul. Jams like “It’s My House” and hushed valentines like “I’m in the World” bore Ross’ interpretive streak like no one’s business.

Alma Caribeña (Epic, 2000): The album that opened me up to non-English music. Recalled certain critics observing that Estefan’s voice supposedly shone better in her native tongue. I enjoyed Estefan in-and-out of English myself. However, there is some truth to their statement as the liveliness present on Alma Caribeña poured from every note played and sung.

Sol-Angel & the Hadley Street Dreams (Geffen, 2008): Who would have thought that Solange could pull this rabbit out of popular music’s hat when she did? Her fix on a vintage / modern vocal attack kept my ears glued to this in the late summer of 2008.

Head Over Heels (Virgin, 1995): The musicianship for this? Grade A, top shelf and every other adjective you can plug in. Even if on you don’t like Abdul’s voice―which was exceptionally versatile on Heads Over Heels―the arrangements on the LP were so intelligent. You had jazz, you had hip-hop, you had funk all wrapped together. You just don’t hear that kind of diversity on pop albums anymore. 

Hall & Oates () / Phyllis Hyman () / Randy Crawford () / Jamiroquai () / Michael Jackson ()

Hall & Oates (26) / Phyllis Hyman (27) / Randy Crawford (28) / Jamiroquai (29) / Michael Jackson (30)

X-Static (RCA, 1979): X-Static. The frenzied send-off to Hall & Oates’ patchwork 1970’s era before their 1980’s dominance. That isn’t a knock, Hall & Oates jumped around to every conceivable sound on their initial albums. I adore genre jumping, it’s so pop. Anyway, X-Static was funky and playful―definitely a record for those that like a myriad of music.

Somewhere in My Lifetime (Arista, 1979): God, this woman’s voice. It’s phenomenal. She has many different phases in her discography, but her “bright period” was exceptional on Somewhere in My Lifetime. The right amount of jazz and disco on this offering was a welcome backdrop for a Saturday afternoon.

Everything Must Change (Warner Brothers, 1976): Crawford’s voice possessed kick, but she never fell into gratuitous singing. She complemented the crisp production at play throughout this piece with patience. Everything Must Change made no (sales) ripples, but was a true hidden treasure when I found it.

A Funk Odyssey (Sony, 2001): In light of the “disco revival” that has been raging over the last three years, many forgot that Jamiroquai spearheaded it as far back as 1996. I think they hit their stride with it on A Funk Odyssey. Though their acid jazz had disco at its roots, this was full blown floor killing music. 

Off the Wall (Epic, 1979): The greatest black dance album ever? For once I can actually agree with the masses on this score. Michael Jackson kept making great music post-Off the Wall, but the joyousness evinced on this LP wasn’t present in his later output. 

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P.M. Dawn (31) / Ace of Base (32) / Emma Bunton (33) / Swing Out Sister (34) / George Michael (35)

The Bliss Album…? (Island, 1993): My Dad played this album a lot in the car when I was kid; it would be years before I realized how ahead of the curve P.M. Dawn was with The Bliss Album…?. Truly a black alternative brainchild, it pains me how this act has been relegated to 1990’s nostalgia. This record, along with their other three LPs, are the best alt-soul spinners you’ll hear.

The Bridge (Arista, 1995): Much stronger and wider in its scope than what Ace of Base hinted at with The Sign (1994). When people ask me what my favorite “follow-up” album of all time is, I answer with The Bridge. The world music textures on this transported me to places unseen, their goal I assume. Though I think they improved even more with Flowers / Cruel Summer (1998) and Da Capo (2002), the magic and mystery of The Bridge lives.

Free Me (Universal, 2004): I knew when this record dropped it was going to change the game―for British pop and the overall Spice Girls legacy. Bunton was not the only Brit to dip into the mod-pop pot, but she wore it well. Beautifully sung and produced, Bunton’s second album reset what a former Spice Girl could do artistically (and commercially).

Filth and Dreams (Mercury, 1999): Mentioning 1960’s pop revivalists, Swing Out Sister arguably stamped that movement. What I liked about Filth & Dreams was its modernity mixed with retro pop appeal. While Swing Out Sister were no strangers to melancholy, they courted a solemn air on this project. Personally, I thought the gravitas was pretty.

Older (DreamWorks, 1996): Though Michael wouldn’t come out for another two years, Older played close to the confessional hilt. Michael adjusted the temporal frequency for Older to add hip-hop textures on “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel,” which suited Michael well like his previous black music forays.

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Will Young (36) / Duran Duran (37) / The Supremes (38) / Hikaru Utada (39) /Joni Mitchell (40)

Echoes (RCA, 2011): For my money, Will Young was the real deal when it came to reality show produced talent. The first winner of ‘Pop Idol’ in England, Young took quick creative control of his music. His fifth album caught my attention and I went back to discover his other stuff. But, Young’s understated blend of blue-eyed soul and pop with Echoes made my ears very happy in late 2011. 

Notorious (EMI, 1986): Starting with this funky entry, Duran Duran became a group based in the sound of the period―even if it was not what critics or fans wanted. Slimming down to a trio didn’t halve Duran Duran’s abilities, not to my ears. If anything the division gave them clarity to dress up and get down.

Touch (Motown, 1971): The 1970’s were very kind to The Supremes from an artistic stance. As the album format dawned at the start of that decade, The Supremes shifted away from the singles approach and became a “back-to-front” recording act. Touch was was an ideal play for a rainy day or a bright morning. 

Heart Station (EMI, 2008): The clean production lines on this album were fantastic, and there was a reason why. The LP had taken and applied everything Utada learned from 2002 through to 2006; that stretch of time contained her bravest music recorded. As a result, Heart Station was aware of its structure, but not impeded by it. Utada’s lyrics and vocals synced up and painted a picture of a woman that was in complete control of her artistic expression.

Hejira (Asylum, 1976): Mitchell’s guitar took on many different shapes on Hejira. I’d never known the guitar to possess that kind of versatility displayed―most of the instrumentation was centered on it during the LP’s run time. It was an album that put the listener on a journey through Mitchell’s aural soundscapes of love and life.

[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]

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The QH Blend’s Class of 2004

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Hello readers! If you missed my 2004-2014 retrospectives from throughout the year, I’ve collected them all for you here. See below for the specific link to the corresponding album that you’re interested in. My selections from 2014 will be appearing soon, so be on the lookout!

Emma Bunton: Free Me (read here)

Vanessa Carlton: Harmonium (read here)

De La Soul: The Grind Date (read here)

En Vogue: Soul Flower (read here)

Janet Jackson: Damita Jo (read here)

Gwen Stefani: Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (read here)

Hikaru Utada: Exodus (read here)

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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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