Being a performer was in Janet Jackson’s DNA. By the time she debuted as a solo artist in 1982, the world had already fallen in love with the man who defied gravity, moonwalking across stages and into our hearts with ease. But when your brother is Michael Jackson, you learn a thing or two about how to command the stage. “I’ve studied the best…Michael Jackson, who was just down the hall,” she said in a 1990 interview with Los Angeles Times. Janet, like Michael, used her performances to provide an experience. If you wanted to see someone sit on a stool with a mic, you were probably at the wrong show.
There’s one routine that fully encapsulates Janet’s essence. On 2001’s All for You tour, she’s dressed as a dominatrix, dripping in a full latex bodysuit. She was sensuality in its full range: aggressive, yet gentle, forward, yet coy. She sings “Would You Mind,” an instructional song detailing all of her sexual preferences so explicitly it got All for You banned in Singapore. “Baby, would you mind touching me / Ever so slowly / You’re making me quiver,” she sings.
“I’m feeling kind of lonely up here. I think I want some company,” she says slowly, scanning the crowd. She straps a fan onto a velvet stretcher and does as the lyrics suggest. “And I’m gonna kiss you, suck you, taste you, ride you,” she sings, as she simulates each of the moves. One fan even says, “I’ve waited for this for so long.” This was Janet’s sweet spot. She was fulfilling fantasies. Every move is Janet’s call and the men are simply props, an exercise of the authority she established almost two decades before.
In the early 80s, Janet released two albums— Janet Jackson and Dream Street—which did little to distinguish her from her family name or her squeaky clean roles on Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes. But a few years later, she teamed up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for her follow-up album, Control, which allowed her to assert herself as an artist who wasn’t under Joe Jackson’s rule or lost in Michael’s shadow. Control was urgent, and at barely 20 years old, it was where Janet finally found her groove. The album was led by an edgy sound with undertones of funk curated by Jam and Lewis, who’d worked with Prince and Morris Day prior to joining Janet’s team. Control borrowed the synths of the 80s pop, but she made it street. “This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do,” she says on the album’s opener. “And this time, I’m going to do it my way.” Without Control, there’d be no Ctrl. Janet showed black women that there wasn’t anything wrong with demanding the right to tell your story.
Janet would continue to do it her way, with each album unraveling another dimension of the multifaceted artist she grew into. She was a chameleon in her approach, dressing up pop songs with hip-hop’s provocative ear. During Janet’s ascent, the space for black women in pop was finite with only Whitney Houston occupying the other lane. Where Whitney used her voice with potency, Janet did the opposite. She filled the spaces of each song in a whisper as if to tickle the track. It was light enough for sultry ballads and dynamic enough for high-energy dance songs.
Over the course of her 30-year career, she’s been a reminder that feminism in pop music needn’t just look like Madonna. But like Madonna, Jackson has had to deal with her share of controversy. Though Madonna is revered for pushing at social norms, Jackson’s accidental faux pas left her condemned. Draw from that comparison whatever conclusions you must. After the 2004 Super Bowl performance with Justin Timberlake left her nipple exposed for 9/16 of a second, Janet’s career was never fully restored. That year, she was uninvited to the Grammys, the same night Timberlake would win two awards. Clear Channel Communications pulled her catalog from their programming, which made Damita Jo, the album immediately following the scandal, her lowest-selling record since Rhythm Nation. After 14 years, the stain is finally starting to lift. This year, she received Billboard’s Icon Award and headlined Essence Fest and Panorama with another performance lined up for Global Citizen’s Festival. Here’s how to get into the dynamic work she’s made over the course of her career, the sort of stuff that half of a second could never erase.
So you want to get into: Woke, Before Woke Was a Word, Janet?
Before Kendrick was protesting police brutality and the American carceral state on the Grammy stage or Beyonce served us an ode to black womanhood in the form of Lemonade, there was Janet Jackson. She was using her platform to address the ills of society long before “woke” was overused by your liberal co-worker. Janet understood the importance of using her career to promote more than her talent, and she drew from the greats before her to get her message across. “I re-listened to those artists who moved me when I was younger…Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye,” she said in a 1990 interview with Essence. “These were people who woke me up to the responsibility of music. They were beautiful singers and writers who felt for others. They understood suffering.”
Control was the album that affirmed her independence and she used that autonomy to figure out her place in the world on Rhythm Nation 1814. In 1989, she released her fourth album, and conceptually it was the most cohesive album she’d released. All seven singles were Top 10 hits, beating Michael’s record. Rhythm Nation was militant and Janet was the Commander-in-Chief. Its title track set the tone of what Janet was trying to say, “Things are getting worse / We have to make it better / It’s time to give a damn.”
The video stripped Janet from the Sesame Street-like video sets she’d used for Control. Her brigade dressed in all black, performed intricate choreography, executing moves that at that time only the King of Pop could do. It was a vital moment in realizing that in order to be the best, she’d have to go after the best—even if that meant sibling rivalry. “She felt guilty in admitting she did feel competitive,” said A&M executive John McClain in a 1987 interview with Spin. “She was scared that she’d try and fail.”
On “Living in a World,” she reminds us bigotry is learned behavior. “They are born with spirits so innocent / ‘Til we teach them how to hate,” she sings. The song ends with the audio of a news anchor detailing the school shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, CA, which feels like an eerie warning on the reckless nature of the nation’s gun laws.
Rhythm Nation may have been her most conscious album, but her activism didn’t stop there. She borrows Public Enemy’s Chuck D for janet.'s “New Agenda,” a year after the Rodney King riots. Janet’s activism was reacting to current events as they happened, and this was long before Twitter was an option. Relying on New Jack Swing horns, and with Chuck D as her first collaboration with a rap artist, Janet proved she was able to not only be malleable, but able to use a popular sound to pass along her message. She was addressing issues of intersectionality without contorting the message. “Because of my gender / I’ve heard no too many times / Because of my race / I’ve heard no too many times.” She sings.
“She came from a black situation. Those are her roots,” said Joe Jackson in a 1987 interview with Spin. “You can stay black and sell millions of records.” This was proof.
Playlist: "Interlude: Pledge" / “Rhythm Nation” / “State of the World” / "Interlude: Race" / “The Knowledge” / “Racism” / “New Agenda” / “Free Xone” / “Hidden Track: Can't Be Stopped”
So you want to get into: Miss Jackson If You’re Nasty, Janet?
In 1986, Janet gave us “Nasty,” but it would only scratch the surface of just how nasty she would get. “No, my first name ain’t baby. It’s Janet. Miss Jackson if you’re nasty,” she says on the Control single. It was a line that caused you to double take, but any suggestive thoughts were pacified by her ballad “Let’s Wait Awhile.” Sex, per that staid number, wasn’t on the table for her. It wouldn’t be until 1993 on janet. where Jackson would explore just how nasty she could get. Sure, Janet is downright nasty in her verbiage on some of these tracks, her voice is the real aphrodisiac. She uses her voice as an instrument, saturating the song with soft whispers, making sure every bit of the track is covered.
On janet. we were introduced to a mature iteration of the singer. The 27-year-old singer was stepping into her status as a sex symbol. Unlike other artists, Janet’s sexuality isn’t just one note. There’s “Throb,” the house song, on which she begs, “DJ make me wet.” There’s “The Body That Loves You,” the boss nova-inspired bop that is more sensual than it is nasty. Of course, there’s “Any Time, Any Place,” which was a demand for spontaneous sex with a video that doubled as a campaign for safe sex. And still, this wasn’t the most risque Janet would get.
BDSM would be embedded into The Velvet Rope long before Rihanna released “S&M.” If janet. was about sexual liberation, Velvet Rope was about testing her limits. Before sexual fluidity was widely accepted for a mainstream pop artist, she suggests that she experimented with a woman on “Tonight’s the Night,” singing in a near whisper. She reveled in her kinks on “Rope Burn,” which introduced a generation before 50 Shades of Grey to BDSM, citing candle wax, blindfolds, and rope as props for her playground. To our surprise, Miss Jackson was certainly able to get nastier. Both All for You and Damita Jo would go on to produce sections of pure sex songs, but nothing can compare to the eight-minute stretch of on 2004’s Damita Jo. Rain falls in the background of “Warmth,” an ode to fellatio. “Nothing can prepare you for the warmth of my mouth, she sings.” Transitioning into “Moist,” by saying “Now, it’s my turn,” it’s truly one of the sexiest sequences you’ll ever hear.
Playlist: “Funny How Time Flies” / “Someday Is Tonight” / “Throb” / "The Body That Loves You"/ "Rain" / "Any Time, Any Place" / “Tonight’s The Night” / "Rope Burn" / "Anything" / “China Love” / “Love Scene” / “Would You Mind?" / "Strawberry Bounce" / "Like You Don’t Love Me" / “Warmth” / “Moist” / “Love 2 Love”
So you want to get into: Pop Architect Janet
Janet was primed to be a pop star well before she knew what she could bring to the genre. Janet Jackson was released two months before Thriller and though nepotism got her in the door, she would prove it wasn’t what would make her stay. Her self-titled debut opens with “Say You Do,” led with a heady electric guitar, mimicking the syncopated stylings of Zapp & Roger. It’s indicative of one of the parts of her music that makes her great, a knack for taking more niche genres and magnifying them for a mainstream audience.
She flirts with hip-hop on Rhythm Nation, but it wouldn’t be until Velvet Rope where she would fully embrace the genre—with an assist from Q-Tip—on “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” On that track, she interpolated Joni Mitchell’s downcast folk-pop and reinvented it into something edgier. Janet didn’t just do this on her singles, but this technique was buried in her deep cuts too, like Damita Jo’s “My Baby,” which features an early Kanye West vocal. The more established she got, the further she reached in her Rolodex of influences. So when she draws reference to Japanese iconography on “If” and “Doesn’t Matter,” she lets the traditional instruments breathe before dropping heavy drum kits on it. Much like Rhythm Nation, she was internalizing her relationship to those cultures, rather than trying to emulate them.
Her ability to display range within her more palatable songs doesn’t discredit the work she did when she was playing the pop game. In 1993, aside from janet. also sported a sound that bubblegum pop acts would adopt years later. Janet’s experience with blending genres allowed songs like “Because of Love” to become the template for bands like *NSYNC, who would later open her Velvet Rope tour.
Playlist: “Say You Do” / “Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing” / “Young Love” /“The Magic Is Working” /“Come Give Your Love to Me” / “Pretty Boy” / “Communication” / “All My Love To You” / “Fast Girls” / “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” / “Nasty” / “When I Think of You” / “Alright” / “Escapade” / “This Time” / “What’ll I Do” / “Because of Love” / "Whoops Now" / “Empty” / “You Ain’t Right” / “Come on Get Up” / “Doesn’t Really Matter” / "What About?" / “That’s The Way Love Goes” / “Let’s Wait Awhile”
So you want to get into: Dance Your Heart Out Janet?
Hearing “5,4,3,2…,” meant Janet was about to murder the dance floor. And if she said “Edit,” you knew you were really in for a treat. She left room on tracks for dance breaks that required intricate choreography and created some of dance’s most iconic music videos. The moments like the chair drop on “Pleasure Principle” and the precision of “Rhythm Nation” meant dance was just another facet of her career.
Like much of the music released in the 80s, Janet’s dance music from her first two albums relied heavily on a groove. Her sound became a marriage of a little of her brother, Prince, and Paula Abdul’s choreography. But, Janet’s most clever foray into dance music sits between janet. and All for You. In fact, some of her best music for intricate eight counts were her best pop records. Whether it was using hip-hop as its base, literal dance music, Janet has never been afraid to move.
Playlist: "Interlude: Let’s Dance" / “Don’t Stand Another Chance” / “So Excited” / “Feedback” / “All for You” / “Together Again” / “Rhythm Nation” / “If” / "Someone to Call My Lover" / "Pleasure Principle" / “You Want This” / “Funky Big Band” / “Come on Get Up” / "Son of a Gun"
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.