By 1997, Janet Jackson seemingly had it all: three highly successful studio albums, two lucrative concert world tours, an Oscar nomination, a long-term boyfriend/husband, one of the biggest paid recording contracts of all time and millions of fans. It’s even arguable that it was her star power that resulted in Scream, the collaboration that marked brother Michael’s comeback.
Eventually, Janet’s life-long battles with body image and self-esteem became too much to bear, as she could no longer suppress the pain. Her resulting depression meant that she went missing from the studio for days at a time during the recording sessions for The Velvet Rope.
Janet’s soul-searching during this turbulent period inspired the themes of her fourth album with loyal henchmen Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The title of what has become her masterpiece carries multiple meanings: the barrier separating VIPs from the public; the wall protecting one’s inner feelings from scrutiny; the obstacles faced by racial and sexual minorities day-to-day.
She also had an image makeover whose impact can still be seen today. Janet rocked red hair, an androgyny softer than Grace Jones, tattoos and a kinky fetish for latex and bondage way before Rihanna, Beyonce, Janelle Monae and others, breaking down even more boundaries for African Americans.
It’s obvious from the sinister melodies, ominous strings, the Tubular Bells sample, Janet’s shaky, vulnerable vocals and Vanessa Mae’s twisted violin solo on the spine-chilling opening title track that this album is not another janet. The exploration of Janet’s inner turmoil continues on the deceptively groovy You. This emotionally confronting track highlights Janet’s vocal versatility, encompassing emotionally weary performances in the verses, reassuring backing vocals and demented, distorted and claustrophobic cries for help in the choruses. The lyrics including ‘when you hate you, you hate everyone that day’ and ‘you can not run from you, can’t hide from you’ speak the absolute truth, empowering listeners to take more control of their lives.
The Velvet Rope was ahead of its time in numerous ways. Free Xone and a bisexual take of Rod Stewart’s Tonight’s The Night are examples of the album’s pro-LGBTQIA message. The visceral hard-rock epic about domestic violence, What About, is an album standout and an explicit, emotional smack to the face. Jaws will inevitably drop at lines like ‘all the shit you done to me’ and ‘you didn’t fuck her, she only gave you head’. Empty revolves around online dating. The dingy, sleazy Rope Burn has Janet opening herself up and doing S&M when a future Barbadian pop superstar was still at school.
The classy Got ‘Til It’s Gone (featuring Q-Tip and sampling the chorus Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi), the Motown-sampling My Need and the saucy Anything are high quality servings of mellow trip-hop. It’s hard to believe that the jubilant house-pop classic Together Again (a tribute to Janet’s friends who passed away from AIDS) was almost never a single until Janet put her foot down. Go Deep is the album’s Escapade, possibly even a prequel to Janet’s ‘single life’ follow-up All For You. It is a welcome distraction from the personal issues explored on the album and a infectiously catchy, slinky soundtrack for going out. The rhymes (e.g. ‘get him all alone, make him scream and moan’) couldn’t be better. Pharell, THIS is how you tribute Marvin Gaye.
Some of Janet’s greatest ballads are here too. The tender, angelic Every Time is far superior than the overrated, soppy saccharine Again, as it has an even better piano hook and more intimate vocal performance. The intensely personal, post-breakup jam I Get Lonely ranks amongst Janet’s finest. Its timeless, soulful production features out-of-this-world chord changes, a chilled, jazzy arrangement including funky Rhodes Piano and another heart-wrenching vocal that strips Janet emotionally bare. Special has Janet conjuring a child-like wonder like her brother, as she reminds listeners to water their spiritual garden and that we are all works in progress.
The Velvet Rope is a cathartic effort from Janet that shows immense artistic growth from its predecessors, as it forces listeners to look inwards. Coming from an era when pop stars actually shook things up, it’s hardly surprising that this album’s legacy has lasted. This album is a classic lesson in how pop stars should evolve as artists: something that is incredibly rare in the pop music world today.