‘Janet,’ which came out 30 years ago, is Janet Jackson’s most important album

OPINION: ‘Control’ and ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ were breakout albums, but ‘Janet’ is where Ms. Jackson stopped being who others wanted her to be and started doing her own thing.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I did not take Janet Jackson seriously until May 18, 1993.

I first saw her on one of my favorite shows as a kid: “Diff’rent Strokes.” I saw this cute, brown-skinned girl named Charlene who was dating Willis. She had a smile that would light up the screen, and her cheekbones reminded me of my favorite singer, Michael Jackson.

I was smitten. I had to find out who that girl was.

I asked my mom, but at the time she was knee-deep in evangelical Christianity. Mrs. Ware thought that secular music was bad for me, so she took all her Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson tapes and put them at the top of the closet where they could not be easily reached.

She figured that if the tapes were out of sight, I would not find them. She was wrong. When she wasn’t home, I would pull out a tape, most likely “Thriller,” and listen to it on blast.

Even though I am almost certain my mom knew who that girl was, she brushed me off and said: You figure it out.

The internet did not exist in the ’80s. Now people can find out whatever they want in a split second by asking the Google machine. It’s how many people (and by many people, I mean me) watch true-crime shows. We spend most of the time not actually watching the documentary or TV show; we catch the gist of the story and spend the rest of the time on Wikipedia reading about what happened.

So, since I did not have the internet at my fingers to answer my question, I went to my version of pop culture Google. My best friend.

Janet Jackson, Together Again tour, Black music artists, theGrio.com
Janet Jackson performs at Hard Rock Live at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood on April 14, 2023 in Hollywood, Florida. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Janet Jackson)

Gibran Lacey lived down the street from me. His parents were strict Muslims, but he knew everything about pop culture. He could explain why Panthera was the most important Thundercat. Why Voltron was better than Transformers. And, most importantly, why Donatello was the best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

“Her name is Janet,” Gibran said as we walked home from the bus stop. “Janet Jackson.”

It all made sense. That’s why she looked familiar. I could not place it when I saw her, but she was the little sister of Michael. Part of the famous — and infamous because of Joe — Jackson family.

Her acting impressed me, but it took a while to warm up to her singing. I was wholly unimpressed by her first two albums “Janet Jackson” and “Dream Street.” On those, she was stuck between the sensibilities of her older brothers and the more progressive sound of New Edition. She was adrift in a sea of bubble gum pop without her own sound to anchor her.

Then she grew up.

On “Control” and “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Janet stopped being the little sister to Michael and Jermaine and became her own woman. Those were masterful albums with bangers like “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” and the first song that I can ever remember dancing to: “Rhythm Nation.”

In 1986, Janet hooked up with two men (one from Minneapolis and the other from Omaha, Neb.) who would see her potential and rocket her to the cultural stratosphere: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. She was the voice, to be sure, but I saw those albums as much a credit to her production team as they were to her as an artist. Talented producers can make any song a hit if they have a decent artist to work with.

Though she seemed to have grown up, I had yet to see her personality as an artist. She was good at embodying the intent of her producers, but I felt that I had not truly seen what was unique about her.

Then 1993 happened.

In May of that year, she released the album, “Janet.” Though she released an album titled “Janet Jackson” in 1982, she released “Janet” almost as if she were reintroducing herself to the world.

She had already proclaimed that she was in charge of her life on “Control,” but this was the first album where she owned her sexuality.

“Any Time, Any Place”; “Throb”; “You Want This.” Just read the titles and you know exactly what the songs are about. She is unmistakably sexual with her lyrics. The album cover featured a strategically cropped version of a Rolling Stone cover in which Jackson appeared topless with the hands of then-husband René Elizondo Jr. covering her breast. This is not an album that throws a rock and hides its hand. It does not talk about the subject matter indirectly. This is not an explicit album, but it oozes with sexuality.

Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are on the boards, but this is Janet’s album. She is not following the direction of the production. The producers are following her lead.

This was the album that set Janet apart. She followed it up with “Velvet Rope,” one of the best albums of all time, but she set the template for that album with this one.

When “Poetic Justice” dropped in July 1993, Janet’s metamorphosis was complete. She had stopped being merely a member of the Jackson musical dynasty. She had become Janet — a star in her own right.

This is Ms. Jackson’s most important album. The record where she stopped being who others wanted her to be and started doing her own thing.

Black culture would never be the same.

Lawrence Ware is a teaching assistant professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University and co-director of the Center for Africana Studies.

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