by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
The Velvet Rope (1996, Virgin)
… and this is where it all started to go horribly wrong. Like janet, this is an overly long album, clocking in at over seventy minutes and containing twenty-two cuts (seven of those being thoroughly unnecessary spoken-word interludes). But the length is the least of the album’s problems. First of all, the songs here are badly lacking in the hooks department, to the extent that the only part of the lead-off single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” that you’re likely to remember at all is the brief Joni Mitchell sample in its chorus. Secondly, Jackson has pretty much ceased writing about sex with any kind of subtlety whatsoever. Some critics find that kind of frankness exciting and daring, but you could make just as strong a case that it demonstrates a lot of laziness and lack of creativity as a lyricist. (Compare, say, the Police’s “Roxanne” to T-Pain’s “I’m N Luv (wit a Stripper)” – which one do you find more artful? I’m inclined to pick the former myself.) While some critics predictably raved over the album’s sheer carnality, it’s that very trait that causes the disc to feel less like a serious piece of art than a deliberate attempt to shock people and push buttons, particularly since the melodies on most of these songs are virtually non-existent. The only truly indispensable song here is the pretty Number One hit “Together Again,” the lighthearted vibe of which unfortunately also sounds completely out of place here on what is otherwise a fairly dark and edgy album.
All for You (2001, Virgin)
A thankfully much more lighthearted and modestly more radio-friendly album than its predecessor, All for You still suffers somewhat from a preoccupation with sex (the album reaching its absolute nadir on the pornographic slow-jam “Would You Mind,” the closing seconds of which are easily one of the most shockingly sexually-explicit moments to be found on a mainstream pop album), but it also has a larger number of catchy melodies and fun moments. “Trust a Try” is one of Janet’s more artistically successful stabs at cutting something more rock-oriented. The profanity on the “You’re So Vain”-sampling “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Is Song About You)” is a bit over-the-top and unnecessary, but it’s otherwise a fun kiss-off of a song, and it creatively goes beyond simply sampling the Carly Simon hit by also bringing Simon in herself to throw a few jabs of her own. The album’s title cut (one of three Number One hits from the album) is also pretty fun, sampling Change’s “The Glow of Love” to great effect. Even better is the sunny, stuttering pop of “Doesn’t Really Matter” and the equally playful “Someone to Call My Lover,” which cleverly manages to write an entirely new song around the acoustic guitar lick from America’s “Ventura Highway.”
Damita Jo (2004, Virgin)
Arguably the most misguided album she’s ever made, Damita Jo also has the distinction of being the first album Jackson released after her notorious “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl halftime show. In hindsight, it’s very possible that she might have overcome that incident had she just had the good sense to realize that a line had been crossed, accidental or not, laid low for a while, and started to actually employ some subtlety in her songwriting again and return to the more innocuous yet career-making pop of Control and Rhythm Nation. She did give a tearful public apology in the aftermath of the debacle, but parents could be forgiven for questioning just how genuine that apology really was, though, once Jackson released Damita Jo, which turned out to be easily the most pornographic and sex-obsessed album she had made yet (and one that even made Prince’s Dirty Mind seem family-friendly in comparison), necessitating a clean version that deleted most of the offensive lyrics and eliminated two songs entirely that were too off-color to even be edited, which tells you just how frank this material was. Much like The Velvet Rope, the frankness of the lyrics never actually seems particularly artistic, just desperate to shock. Even worse, this album is all groove and no melody, and the songs so devoid of strong hooks that it’s hard to imagine this disc getting all that much radio play even had the Super Bowl incident never happened, although the Kanye West-produced “I Want You” is pretty great.
20 Y.O. (2006, Virgin)
It’s not quite a return to form – the material’s just a little too spotty – but Jackson’s final album with Virgin is at least an encouraging step back in the right direction. Unlike Damita Jo, which nearly had more producers than it had songs, Jackson largely sticks to using old cohorts Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on every cut here (with extra help from Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal on about half the tracks), which makes the album feel a little more unified. She also dramatically dials down the explicitness of her lyrics, which is quite refreshing after the in-your-face raunch of the previous album. “Take Care,” “Daybreak,” and the Herbie Hancock-sampling “So Excited” are all quite appealing, and the easygoing Nelly duet “Call on Me” – deservedly Janet’s first Top 40 solo hit in five years – is quite charming.
Discipline (2008, Island)
The bad news: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are nowhere to be found here. The good news: even though she’s once again incorporating more producer/co-writers here than songs, her producers of choice are nonetheless good ones, particularly Rodney Jerkins, Jermaine Dupri, and Ne-Yo. It’s harder-edged than her previous record and consequently lacks the charm of that disc, and the title track is an ill-advised and unpleasant throwback to The Velvet Rope, but it’s got just as many decent songs as 20 Y.O., highlighted by the catchy Jerkins-helmed single “Feedback,” “Luv,” and the Ne-Yo co-writes “Rock with U” and “Can’t B Good.”
Number Ones (2009, A&M/Universal)
Janet’s second hits package, there’s only one new studio cut here (“Make Me”), but then, this double-disc compilation is so perfectly done, it doesn’t need anything new. Everything – including “Runaway” – that was also on Design of a Decade is included here as well, with the sole exception of the insignificant “Twenty Foreplay.” All of Janet’s Top 40 hits for Virgin and Island are also included here with the sole exception of the 1994 double-sided hit “You Want This / ‘70s Love Groove” and All for You’s “Son of a Gun.” Those omissions are more than made up for, though, by the inclusion of outside projects like her Michael Jackson duet “Scream,” the Busta Rhymes duet “What’s It Gonna Be?,” the Luther Vandross duet “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” and Herb Alpert’s “Diamonds.” It’s not quite a complete substitute for the studio albums – you really should hear the janet non-single “What’ll I Do,” for one; it’ll certainly change your impression of Janet for the better – but it’s as lovingly assembled a hits package as you could hope one to be!
Unbreakable (2015, BMG/Rhythm Nation)
After a seven-year hiatus, Jackson returns – thankfully and wisely, with Jam and Lewis in tow for the whole album – with what is easily her best and most confident-sounding outing since at least 2001’s All for You and possibly even 1993’s janet. The time off has served Jackson well, her songwriting sounding considerably more inspired than it has in years – and also much more mature at that, Jackson finally having fully shaken off her increasingly tiresome tendency over the last two decades to want to push the boundaries of good taste and shock people, this easily being her least risqué album since Rhythm Nation. For the first time in what seems like an eternity, Janet actually sounds unafraid to stop competing with the likes of Britney or Rihanna, and she instead sounds perfectly happy to settle comfortably into middle age and make the kind of sophisticated and classy adult-R&B album we typically only get from artists like John Legend or Maxwell or Alicia Keys. Just as importantly, she and her team come up with her catchiest set of songs in years, and there are some true knockouts here, especially “Take Me Away,” “Broken Hearts Heal” (which has distinct echoes of her brother Michael), and the hypnotic “Lessons Learned.” Control and janet remain the more essential discs, but if you were to only own three Janet Jackson albums, this is not at all a bad choice to go with for your third purchase: Rhythm Nation naturally has plenty of hits to justify its inclusion in your collection, but this is arguably the warmer and more appealing of the two albums.