Janet Jackson – Rhythm Nation 1814

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1. There are eight (!!!) interlude tracks here ,separated as their own tracks as if trying to make this R&B’s answer to De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising released earlier that year when they could have easily been tacked on to the tracks they lead into or removed without consequence. None of these skits matter, and before you try to tell me that all skits suck, I’ll raise you the ones that opened “Control” – which was a more effective exposition than anyone could hope for – and “What Have You Done For Me Lately” – which was hilarious – from her previous album. Anyway, moving on:

2. “Rhythm Nation” is her best song, though it’s obviously more indebted to Jam & Lewis then Janet Jackson – and considering the main hook is delivered by male backing vocals, I’m going to go ahead and say it’s her best song despite the fact that she barely has anything to do with it. Lyrically, they take the ideology of Sly & the Family Stone’s Stand (the one with lyrics like “Stand!” and “Don’t call me nigger, whitey”) while musically, they toss all sorts of 80s’ seasoning on Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (For Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” until the resulting product tastes just as good (/fresh) as it did twenty years ago. Love how the song doesn’t start with the groove, and even the drum intro doesn’t lead into the groove as you’d think it would – everything in the opening 12 seconds just building your anticipation for what’s to come. Also love the dispersed “Nasty”’s throughout.

3. On the album, Christgau lends that “the P-Funk pretensions of “nation” are a little much from somebody whose knowledge of the world is based on the 6 o’clock news.” The lyrics of “Rhythm Nation” might have been naïve in that it thought it could cure racism by getting everyone dancing, but at least it offered a solution. I think it’s incredibly telling that Janet Jackson’s definition of a socially conscious artist who inspired Rhythm Nation 1814 was U2, who’s idea of being “socially conscious” is simply stating that there are problems in the world and proceeding to do fuck all about it. That’s exactly what happens on “State of the World.” And it’s not just a matter of what the lyrics are, but rather how they’re presented sometimes. For example, the Yoda-ing of “Her body she has sold so her child can eat?” And I have a hard time believing that “Little Johnny” (of course, what else would he be named) gets “teased because he has no place to stay” when apparently “his only friend [is] the doll he carries with him.” Regardless, Christgau also follows that initial criticism with asserting that “The “rhythm” is real,” and that’s exactly why I forgive “State of the World” – equipped with a bass that slays everything in its path.

4. ”The Knowledge” has the same problem – an embarrassingly cheesy bridge where Janet tosses out big words (“Prejudice / Ignorance / Bigotry / Illiteracy” – pick the odd one out, thrown in there only for rhyme’s sake), that are punctuated by a choir of “No!’’s.

5. Whereas most of the songs on this album work in spite of Janet Jackson’s paper thin voice, “Miss You Much” – best hook on the album – and “Escapade” work because of her. On the latter, love how the opening sequencer line (think: “All Through the Night”) and title of “Escapade” makes you think it’s gonna be a ballad – nope. As opposed to the other tracks on the album, the groove here is relatively simple; much has been made about the how the track is an anomaly because little was done after Janet Jackson had finished recording the vocals (Jimmy Jam: “She sang it and we kept saying we’ll go back and redo the track…we never redid the track […] because we’d gotten so used to the feel of the track, the mistakes and all, we ended up leaving it the way it was”). Anyway, this contains Janet Jackson’s best vocals on the entire album. Unlike most of the other songs here, there’s a discernible melody in the verses as well as the choruses. Love the chromatic climb in how she sings the title word in the chorus (love it even more considering it sounds almost vocoder-ized, even though it probably isn’t), love the “LET’S GO!” dispersed throughout. Great bridge, too (at the 3:03 mark), something I never thought I’d say for a Janet Jackson song, but here we are.

6. Some of these songs fall in the 80s trap of being a lot longer than they ought to be. In particular, both “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and “Alright” are played out well before their runtimes finish (there’s also the fact that latter recycles the jolting vocal samples from the pseudo-title track).

7. I had originally written off “Black Cat” as an understandable but otherwise total misunderstanding on Janet Jackson’s part (it’s the only song on the album written entirely by her); as if she listened to her older brother’s  “Beat It” and “Dirty Diana” and wrongly attributed the successes to either to the over-the-top guitar work of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Stevens, respectively, when it was really Michael Jackson doing most of the heavy-lifting on either. Listening to it now, I get the most energetic track on the album, and because of how well she harmonizes with Dave Berry’s riff during the chorus, it might be her most memorable vocals of the entire album. The solo’s still definitive of cock-rock and I have no words for those lifeless drums except that they’re lifeless.

8. It was frankly a Godawful move to put three ballads back-to-back (the final three-song stretch), though tossing that lone flute note in “Lonely” was a good idea that didn’t need to happen but I’m glad it did anyway and the late-night jazziness in the last half of “Someday is Tonight” makes for a good closer. Personally, the best ballad on the album is “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make),” with just the right amount of cheese from the keyboard line and synthesized strings.

9. Michael Jackson might’ve been the better singer, but Janet Jackson has the better nose. And the better album.

B+

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