This piece was originally written for Epinions.com. An archive version of it can be found here. This is a slight revision.
I have to be honest about my bias regarding Janet Jackson. I am biased in that I look at all her work in comparison to The Velvet Rope, her 6th album masterpiece. Upon buying All For You and Damita Jo, depression set in. Janet Jackson was never gonna get that complex again. And all I heard on those albums was how they didn’t sound like The Velvet Rope, didn’t move me like The Velvet Rope, didn’t inspire me like The Velvet Rope.
And while neither album is a disaster, my initial reaction to anyone asking me about them was that “they were terrible.” It was knee jerk. It was unconscious.
Do I really think they are terrible albums?
Interestingly, in the case of All For You, I can still categorically say, “Yes, it is”
But Damita Jo’s charms are wily, my friends. She snuck up and surprised me and gave me pleasure when I wasn’t even expecting it. I’m sitting in my office this past week and I’m thinking how I wanna hear some Janet. Since I never go anywhere without Janet, Rahsaan, and Tupac CDs, that itch was easily scratched.
But in going through the choices of Janet CDs, something told me to play Damita Jo. Nothing more. I didn’t have any kind of adverse reactions. I didn’t resign to hearing it because I was tired of the other ones. It was nothing more than the simple desire to hear the record since I hadn’t heard it in a few months.
And as I listened to it, I found myself grooving to the album. I was feelin’ it. In a completely pure way. I was listening, one could say, for the first time. I wasn’t thinkin’ bout the large specter of The Velvet Rope.
In a pure listen, Damita Jo is a remarkably adept piece of work.
The most noticeable thing about this album is how strong and unadorned Janet’s voice is. It’s a new vocal place for her. She’s usually layered in her own voice and heavy rhythm arrangements, never buried though, never that. On Damita Jo however, almost every song features Janet’s voice front and center. And on a few songs, she has background singers, something she has done rarely in the past. Singers like Janet like to harmonize with themselves. And in Janet’s case, it has always been to stunning effect.
But her voice now is remarkably similar to how strong it sounds live. The first few songs, Damita Jo, Sexhibition and Strawberry Bounce are party songs, and Jan’s voice is so clear, particularly, on Strawberry Bounce. It’s very much like the vocal production on janet.
And the mid-tempos, always Jan’s strong suit, are sublime vocal performances. Kanye’s My Baby is a great song, marred only by the annoying presence of Kanye himself. Janet’s voice captures that bliss of being in your lover’s company. Janet usually uses her own voice for backgrounds, it’s fuller. But here she has two background singers and the differences in their voices and Janet’s voice really allows her to stand out. Over the years, Jan’s voice has matured into a strong instrument of emotive perfection. And her performance here is key in proving that point. Spending Time With You is all percussive and moody, Jan’s favorite soundscapes. And hearing how she glides up and down her range on this song is a pure treat.
The best song on the album is easily Scott Storch’s Island Life. Everything about it is perfect, but nothing more than Janet’s completely naked vocal performance. Her voice is strong, and she pulls off a few really tricky runs. The melody is one of the best she’s created in a while. The song percolates; Storch’s track manages to be airy, full and percussive all at one time. It is a layered track, but it doesn’t sound like it. And the little breakdown near the end is sublime. Listen to how Janet adlibs and lets loose at the end of the song. She is sangin’, y’all. Bravo, ma!
Thinkin’ Bout My Ex, Dallas Austin’s Just A Little While and Like You Don’t Love Me are good songs but each is marred by somewhat messy lyricism. Thinkin’ Bout My Ex is lyrically compelling, but the arrangement is just a little too boring, adult contemporary (almost) for my taste. Except on the beautifully expressive bridge (the only good part of the song), Janet sounds lost in it. Just A Little While and Like You Don’t Love Me are similar in meaning. All sex metaphor. The latter is the stronger song with its nicely cool background arrangements and Janet’s sly vocal performance.
Truly is about the closest thing Jan gets to balladry on the album. And it is a nice little ditty. The key changes and fingersnaps really create the mood for the song. This, along with Island Life, is some of the strongest singing on the album. Jimmy and Terry outdid themselves with this sparse track, from the keys to the electric guitar, it’s all used sparingly and purposefully.
As far as the up-tempos, they have always been my least favorite of Janet’s work. Here, with a few exceptions, is no different. The Swedish stuff—Slolove and All Nite (Don’t Stop)—is for the kids. Nothing more. Neither is lyrically compelling. But in the club, Janet does rule and that is worth noting. But they are out of place on this, mostly, mid-tempo record.
Strawberry Bounce makes inventive use of Jigga’s Can I Get A…, Dallas Austin’s Sexhibition is too heavy to be truly interesting. Damita Jo is easily the best up-tempo and it is due entirely to the breakbeats in the track.
Jimmy and Terry are still, despite the new collaborators, the ones who make best use of Janet’s sense of rhythm and her ability to run an up-tempo. Take R&B Junkie where they take Jan back to the mid 80’s synthesizer era. It’s a track that would have sounded amazing on the Control album. It has all the earmarks of 80’s pop. It sounds like The Jets’ Curiosity so much that I thought it was a sample. But then I remembered that it was just the sound then. It’s a standout for that reason alone. But what makes it work, is that Terry and Janet’s melody is so sharp it relegates the music to the background. You will feel yourself grooving before you even notice it.
Warmth and Moist, musically, are sublime. They are arranged and performed perfectly, but the lyrics are just moronic. I don’t buy either one of these songs. I feel like these were songs recorded for fun and someone let Janet, in a weak moment, keep them on the album. I think had she thought a little longer, they might have never seen the light of day. For the record, it’s not because they are about sucking d*ck and eating a woman out. It’s that they aren’t interesting or unique or specific about what is so great about engaging in those acts. And that is the problem. The execution is sloppy.
Finally, first single I Want You is a Jackson-era Motown throwback. It’s gorgeous in every way. Listen to how Janet’s expressive lower register captures the emotion. And the arrangement allows Janet to really show the strength of her range. She never hits a false note. Kanye, Harold Lilly (the writers of Alicia Keys’ You Don’t Know My Name) and John Legend wrote a great song that most people wouldn’t think is a Janet song and arranged it for her voice proving that Janet can sing far better than most people would have thought.
Given the climate when Damita Jo was released, it was a terrible first single choice. What Janet needed was familiar to remind people why she is among the most imitated living performers. We needed the comfort of an If-style video. We needed the “Ms. Jackson, if your nasty” attitude. What we got was Janet in a completely new place. And for her detractors, it made it easier to write her off. She’d changed. She wasn’t the same Janet. Blah blah blah. The merit of the song was lost because people wanted the Janet they knew.
And it’s a shame, because I Want You was a great single in showcasing the way in which Janet sings on Damita Jo. In revealing her middle name, another piece of who she is, she stripped away some of the extra and allows her voice to carry every song, good or bad. And for a woman who has never been given credit for her voice, it was a risky move.
It paid off.
STANDOUTS: Island Life, R&B; Junkie, I Want You, Damita Jo, Truly, Strawberry Bounce and My Baby