Why Janet Jackson’s ‘The Velvet Rope’ feels more at home in 2017 than it did in 1997

It might be her "kink" album or just her "grown-up" one, but either way two decades on Jackson's sixth LP sounds way ahead of its time

If Janet Jackson’s’ fifth record, ‘Janet’, was her sex album – the one where she swapped the squeaky clean chastity of songs like ‘Let’s Wait A While’ for the moaning filth of ‘Throb’ and the divine career peak of ‘If…’, and used that Rolling Stone photograph for the front cover – then it’s sort of natural that its successor four years later should be Jackson’s kink record: ‘The Velvet Rope’ variously extols the virtues of phone sex, bondage, bicurious experimentation and online encounters, and explores sex not so much physically and lasciviously in the way that ‘Janet’ did as furtively, in terms of secrets, revelations and the more psychological components behind doing it. Jackson communicates this newfound side of her personality with a certain shyness, however, and that, combined with songs elsewhere on the album about her brittle mental health and experiences of domestic and child abuse, has over the years imbued ‘The Velvet Rope’ with a reputation as Jackson’s “grown-up” record, more damaged and more excoriating than anything else she’s done.

On the one hand, that status is valid: scrutinise ‘The Velvet Rope’’s tableau of neuroses, craving, sadness and personal reflection and there’s a picture of a rather wounded, vulnerable woman desperate to reassert her personality, and to do that most ’90s of things and “be herself”. There’s a melancholy there that permeates right through to the singer’s bowed head on the sleeve. Listen without the lyric sheet, though (a fairly easy task, given the production here and Jackson’s opaque singing style), and a wholly different person – and record – appears, one full of slink, sass, and the sort of swaggering self-confidence more becoming of the woman who just the year before had just signed the biggest recording contract in the history of pop.

In that context, so what if ‘Together Again’ is a lament for one of Jackson’s friends who died of AIDS when the accompanying irresistible disco-tinged deep house rush could soundtrack the perfect block party? ‘My Need’ is a set of nervous bedroom instructions, sure, but its G-funk swoops and skittering percussion oozes from the stereo with no hint of unease. Who cares about the self-loathing regret of ‘Got Til It’s Gone’ when it’s so smooth, or ‘What About’’s infidelity psychodrama when it’s this banging? Indeed, so compelling is the musical construction here that there’s one possible reading of ‘The Velvet Rope’ where Jackson’s thematic input is all but absent: Jam & Lewis and Jackson’s production (with a little help from the uncredited J Dilla), all luxuriant and sashaying RnB against grinding new jack swing, is enough to sustain interest for virtually the album’s entirety, rendering the frustration and self-therapy of the lyrics as an afterthought.

It all leaves ‘The Velvet Rope’ as a sort of Schrodinger’s Cat of an album, simultaneously vibrant and morose, a state of affairs fairly unique for a huge diva pop album in 1997. (By contrast Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’, a month older, demonstrates barely a pulse of subversion.)

That distinctive combination of flavour and timing is enough to warrant a revisit of the record on its twentieth anniversary. However, it’s also that exact quality that makes ‘The Velvet Rope’ feel more contemporary than ever in 2017, when issue-driven pop is not just fashionable, but the new normal. Accordingly, in an era where the world’s biggest pop stars can release curated confessionals like ‘Channel Orange’ and ‘Lemonade’, and to a lesser extent ‘Melodrama’, ‘A Seat At The Table’ and even ‘1989’, that align personal psychological unravelling to the sound of super-accessible contemporary pop, ‘The Velvet Rope’ feels entirely at home.

Indeed, with that in mind, it’s tempting to wonder how a record both as scarred and as autobiographical as this would’ve been picked apart had Twitter and today’s always-on comment cycle existed in 1997. Topics as forward-looking as internet sex (the gauzy ‘Empty’, which still sounds futuristic today) and sexual fluidity (‘Free Xone’, all jangling robofunk and Dust Brothers-tinged prowl) would, one imagines, have generated just as many thinkpieces as the Carter-Knowles’ elevator incident. As it is, however, ‘The Velvet Rope’’s existence twenty years on is defined, depending on the prism through which you encounter it, either as the vessel for Jackson’s biggest-ever single (‘Together Again’), or as the most weather-beaten milestone in a somewhat tumultuous life lived in public since the age of five. Even if at times the record can appear callow – Jackson confuses candidness with profundity for a couple of second-half songs, and ‘Every Time’’s syrup hasn’t grown any less sickly in the past two decades – it remains as fascinating a piece of major-league pop as any, and streaks ahead of any of its time.

Jackson released one more album, the distinctly fluffy, dance-pop orientated ‘All For You’, before the 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” debacle derailed her career, the crazily puritanical US popular entertainment industry deciding that a black woman’s single semi-bare breast exposed accidentally by a white man for less than a second should result in her (but not his) permanent blacklisting across mainstream radio and music channels. That injustice now means that despite Jackson releasing five albums in the last twenty years – none of which, admittedly, are a patch on her ’86-’97 prime – ‘The Velvet Rope’ also now feels like her big-league swansong, her last meaningful mainstream communication before being exiled. That lends the record a sort of posthumous poignancy today: as the album’s final track draws to what starts to resemble a rather cathartic close after 70 minutes of hand-wringing, Jackson halts it abruptly, denying the album the neat finish that would be so at odds with its contents. “Work in progress,” she declares immediately afterwards, summing things up rather elegantly. Twenty years on, that’s the work that the generation below Jackson are continuing, with aplomb, huge success and no little influence.

Also out this week in 1997:
Strangelove – Strangelove (Food), chart peak #67

To read all the other entries in Sam’s Twenty Years Ago Today blog, click here.