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.