The Velvet Rope is 75 minutes of the finest work of the Jackson’s career.
Janet Jackson entered 1997 on top of the world but on uncertain ground. Having fulfilled her contract with Virgin Records, Jackson found herself at the center of an intense bidding war for her talent, one that ultimately landed her a record-shattering $80 million when she renewed with her old label. Creatively, however, the singer was coming off a long lull following the release of 1993’s janet. that was compounded by an emotional breakdown suffered while touring the album. Stakes were high, but that only fueled Jackson’s ambition, and the resulting album, The Velvet Rope, paid them off with 75 minutes of the finest work of the artist’s career.
Matching the outsized ambitions of the album’s CD-stretching length are the complexity and frankness of the compositions and lyrics. Opener “Twisted Elegance” comprises only piano and various sheets of noise that roil under what would otherwise be a perfunctory spoken-word introduction from Jackson, one that briefly outlines the album’s loose concept of the inner and outer divisions of self. By wrapping what might have been banal truisms in this harsh soundscape, the album immediately suggests deeper contexts of malaise and isolation that are fully developed on the subsequent title track. In sultry, beckoning tones, Jackson puts forward a barely restrained desire for connection, complicating the sexual nature with an unvarnished need for emotional connection. Jackson also digs into darker manifestations of this need, including the way people “put others down to fill [themselves] up,” addressing how one’s internal hangups can result in external ruptures that drive others away.
It’s a bold way to start a pop album, and the lyrical conceits of The Velvet Rope traverse heady terrain even when largely operating in the bump ‘n grind realm. “My Need” is prefaced by a skit that tackles masturbation, casting the actual track in terms as devoted to self-love as desire for a partner. Meanwhile, “Free Xone” counters much of the rigid heterosexuality of the genre with an ode to love of all kinds and a utopian vision of a society that accepts such affections. This sentiment has been at the heart of dance music since LGBT clubs largely birthed disco, but for one of the world’s biggest pop-stars, in the homophobic backlash to the post-AIDS era, to embrace it and condemn homophobia is still powerful.
The lyrical boldness is more than matched by the arrangements. By now, Jackson’s partnership with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had completely crystallized, consistently matching the singer’s ambitions with productions that kept her at the forefront of the rapidly changing R&B scene of the late-‘80s and early-‘90s. Here, they traverse an incredible range of sounds: “Free Xone” wraps rubber-band bass around a pumping house beat, layering an organic snap into the mechanized rhythm. “What About” deceives the listener with a laid-back calypso sway before Jackson’s angry condemnations of her man’s empty words lurch until bass chords so loud and distorted they verge on industrial funk, while the BDSM ode “Rope Burn” is as sinewy as the cords used to bind Jackson, slow-jam ‘90s R&B directed to pointed effect. “Empty” could pass for Lovesexy-era Prince, gliding on celestial bells and synths that are undercut by a stuttering, clacking percussive click track oddly reminiscent of present-day footwork, a small hiccup of pure, driving id that underscores the elegant tribute to good love with the lust it inspires.
As a colossal, weighty response to personal and social setbacks, The Velvet Rope finds peers in similarly timed works by Prince and Jackson’s brother Michael, the two other points that triangulated ambitious, innovative R&B of the 1980s. MJ’s previous album, HIStory, was large and unwieldy, and too much of it showed him lashing out at the endless controversy that surrounded him. Meanwhile, Prince had at last escaped his record deal with Warner Bros. in 1996 and promptly released his triple-disc Emancipation, only to reveal in the process that he had finally left the label that supposedly curbed his creativity just in time to cease being a forward-thinking, constantly evolving artist.
The Velvet Rope is the only one of these mid-‘90s behemoths to show its artist continuing to grow, of remaining firmly with the bleeding edge of contemporary music. Its effortless blend of throwback cyber-funk with more modern splashes of techno, hip-hop and house music finds Jackson not merely keeping up with trends but molding them to her vision. Perhaps the greatest testament to the range that the artist traverses can be found on “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” in the use of Joni Mitchell and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-TIp. The former appears via a looped sample from “Big Yellow Taxi,” her pitch-shifted and scratched voice providing a de facto chorus. The latter contributes a verse that adds a different perspective for the song’s, indeed the album’s, sense of longing and frustration, and he also worked with J Dilla to provide the buttery neo-soul of the track. As much as ever, Jackson remained fearless in her willingness to use any sound to articulate her own artistry, and in a decade dominated by rapid, innovative changes in the umbrella term of “urban” music, the album stands in the pantheon of the decade’s advancement of the genre.