Janet Jackson may be the queen of reintroductions. She created the prototype for black women in R&B with 1986’s Control, a coming-of-age album that shed her cookie-cutter image as the youngest of the Jackson clan. “This time, I’m going to do it my way,” she declares on Control, and she did, grabbing Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for an edgier sound than her self-titled debut and Dream Street. Three years later, she would reinvent her sound again on Rhythm Nation 1814, with grooves drenched so deeply in socio-politics that it would draw comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? Of the different iterations of the singer, the sultry persona that emerged from 1993’s janet. would prove to be her next and most formative phase—one that would set the blueprint of sexual exploration for black women. Within seconds of janet. “Morning” drips fervently with new intentions: “We used the light from a flickering candle across the room to make the kind of shadows that only one thing could make: love,” she says in a near whisper. Twenty-five years ago, Janet Jackson provided the world with a second wave of her independence, and in doing so, created an intimate record that detailed her relationships—both emotional and physical. janet. is Jackson’s manifesto of sexual liberation. Its execution was rebellious, boldly stating that black women didn’t have to be exploited to be considered sexual. Though notable, its freedom was fleeting, and Jackson’s eroticism would be used against her a decade later on the Super Bowl stage.
Before undressing itself in a sprawling 28 song tracklist, her namesake album certainly looked different. The title “ janet.” was a statement that she didn’t want, or need, to ride on the legacy of her family’s name. The now iconic cover, a tightly cropped portrait of her face, was revealed in full on the September 1993 cover of Rolling Stone. Janet stood shirtless, wearing only unbuttoned jeans, with her then-husband Rene Elizondo’s hands covering her breasts. On the heels of inking a $40 million deal with Virgin Records, janet. used elements of hip-hop, house, and even opera to lead a sexual awakening.“For the first time, I’m feeling free. I love feeling deeply sexual—and don’t mind letting the world know,” she said in a 1993 interview with Rolling Stone. It was a form of feminism in a way that hadn’t been packaged across the country before, one that was truly intersectional and not delivered by white women.
White America had Madonna to serve as their sex ed professor, as she sauntered in a wedding dress in 1984 on “Like a Virgin” and released a book titled Sex just a year before the release of janet. But here, Janet was constructing a syllabus of her own. We find the 27-year-old on “That’s The Way Love Goes,” easing janet.’s sensuality on you, rather than coming on strong. Using pretty metaphors like, “Like a moth to a flame burned by the fire / My love is blind, can’t you see my desire?,” she voyages through descriptions of her scorching love. As the first song and single, “That’s The Way Love Goes” is a preface on what it would be like to be Janet’s lover, loaded with imagery and double entendres. “I’m gonna take you places / You’ve never been before and / You’ll be so happy that you came,” she sings. It’s understated and simulates foreplay, merely prepping you for the 26 other tracks you’ll have to endure. “I didn’t want to break down the door, just slip in through the side. We thought this easy-to-get-with groove—real gentle and real sexy—would be a warm way of kicking things off,” she told Rolling Stone.
The album wouldn’t stay gentle for long. Janet rationed off parts of herself, seamlessly switching between full-length tracks and interludes, creating a rhythm that allowed breathing room when necessary. “Be a Good Boy” was an eight-second request for safe sex that transitions into the wailing guitars on “If,” a song about her fantasies. “At one point, I thought, 'Hmmm, I wonder if this is going to be too much for people to take from me… this innocent picture they have,” she said in a 1993 Los Angeles Times interview. “But I said screw it, this is me.”
The early 90s bred some of R&B’s greatest female vocalists. There was the potency of Whitney Houston, depth of Toni Braxton, range of Mariah Carey, and authenticity of Mary J. Blige. Janet’s voice may not have been as powerful as any of those singers, but it was brimming with innocence. Her role as Penny on Good Times, inadvertently molded her as America’s little sister, but in 1993, the country’s kid sister had grown up. She was no longer singing “Let’s Wait Awhile.” Her first feature film, Poetic Justice, is a “street romance” about two people who bond over grief. Lucky (Tupac Shakur) and Justice (Janet Jackson) fall for each other and the sexual tension is thick, but all they do is share a kiss. In that same Rolling Stone piece, she describes their connection as “learning to touch and be touched all over again.” It’s a technique Jackson employs for much of the album, as she pushes the boundaries on her definition of intimacy.
Reversing sex’s male gaze on popular songs, Janet wasn’t afraid to reveal that in that moment she wanted a man to fulfill her needs. The notion that a black woman was taking agency of her sexuality was what set janet. apart from its peers. “Women want satisfaction. And so do men. But to get it, you must ask for it. Know what you need. Say what you want.” she advised in the LA Times. “Throb,” pulses with moans and demands that the “DJ make [her] wet,” for a dance track that is sexual rather than sensual. Janet’s energy is urgent on this album. That urgency is echoed in “Any Time, Any Place,” which puts her sex drive on display. “I don’t wanna stop just because / People standing ‘round, watching us,” she begins. “I don’t give a damn what they think / I want you now.” In Janet’s world, she unafraid to express herself on the world’s stage. But a “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl would prove that the world wasn’t truly ready to receive her.
The reaction to the moment that ultimately became known as Nipplegate, and Jackson in the following decade, is telling of the ways in which women of color are allowed to exist in sexual spaces. Her breast was exposed for 9/16 of a second during choreography with Justin Timberlake. She was banned from that year’s Grammys, though Timberlake would go on to win two awards that night. Her catalog was pulled from Clear Channel Communications, meaning she received no support from TV or radio and her album sales suffered because of it. When she released Damita Jo a month later, it was her lowest selling album since Rhythm Nation. A year earlier, Madonna would make headlines as usual, this time for a kiss shared between her and pop singers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. This was heralded as an iconic performance and no careers were hurt in the process. The optics of race is crucial in the framing of how black and white women are perceived sexually. As writer Anita Little put it in a 2015 piece for Ms. Magazine: “When you are a woman of color[…], all of your choices—especially ones concerning your body—are questioned and closely scrutinized. At the other end of the race and class spectrum, however, you get to claim you’re just sexually liberated.” Sexuality is fluid when figures like Madonna are able to define what that means for them, but that same courtesy wasn’t given to Janet whether the Super Bowl was a mistake or not.
janet. would be the precursor to 1997’s The Velvet Rope, an album with themes of BDSM, long before 50 Shades of Grey was in the hands of millions of Americans. It was the album that not only made her a sex symbol, but a pop star. Virgin Records gave her a $40 million deal for janet., which was one of the most expensive deals of its time, thrusting her in the conversation among artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna. After delivering janet. she landed a four album deal, including The Velvet Rope, for $80 million. But once sexuality became commodified, there came a point at which it was no longer of use, proving that race and sex are built on shaky foundations. The value of the deals for her most sexual albums were a reflection of where she was allowed to be sexy, and the consequences of the Super Bowl was a clear line of where she was not. janet. is a documentation of her legacy, one that we weren’t ready to fully process all those years ago.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.