It seems as though most artists reach a point in their careers when they’re forced to readapt to their circumstances. Sometimes they’re catapulted to fame, seemingly overnight. Sometimes they reach a level of celebrity that even they didn’t anticipate. But while it may be a recurring theme amongst our favorite artists, perhaps no one understands the repercussions of mega stardom like the Jacksons. Janet Jackson, in particular, was shielded from the scrutiny of the limelight, but her rise would eventually open her up to more public opinion. Although Control was her third album, it was the first testament to Janet’s pending independence—her leap forward in finding herself artistically. With Rhythm Nation 1814 released in 1989, she pushed the envelope even further. Deciding to focus on social issues, it was considered a risk that would isolate her new fan base. Her follow-up, simply titled Janet., was her attempt to not only disassociate herself from her infamous surname, but to take a confident step in the direction of sexual intimacy. From sexual abstinence tracks like “Lets Wait A While,” to more sexually open songs like “Anytime, Anyplace,” Janet was honest about finding her way. Her sixth album, however, would be the departure that no one could have foreseen—a body of work that would finally allow her to breathe.
“At times, especially during my childhood, I felt left out and alone. At times, I felt misunderstood… But no human heard those feelings expressed. They stayed buried in the past. But now the truth has to come out, and for me, the truth takes the form of a song.”— Janet, JET, Nov. ’97
Janet released The Velvet Rope in October of ’97. The album packed 15 tracks of experimental pop and R&B, and 7 interludes of open-minded expression unlike anything she’d done before. It was not only a departure from her previous work musically, but even appearance-wise, she seemed more expressive than ever. Now 31, Janet’s hair was fiery red, she flashed body piercings, and had tattoos. “It’s from South Africa…and it means “to go into your past and deal with your past, in order to move into the future,” she told MTV of her wrist ink. It was a transitional period that, even back then, when rummaging through my mother’s album collection, stuck out to me. Though simple in its expression, I always knew there was more to it. The complexity was evident in not just her new look, but the transparency in her interviews.
“There were times where I didn’t think I was going to complete it,” she told John Norris of her new album. She’d later open up to Ebony magazine about the recording process being the hardest time she’s ever had in her life. Where her previous albums took two-three months to record, The Velvet Rope took up to six months to complete. Here she was at the height of her fame, but metaphorically, facing her fears for the first time ever. She decided The Velvet Rope would be therapeutic, and serve as a way to let her guard down publicly, providing listeners with the opportunity to get to know the real Janet. This meant her personal struggles would be tapped into.
“We all have voices beating us up. But my background taught me to smile and act like the voices aren’t there.”—Janet, Rolling Stone ’98
Janet was struggling with the limelight and adjustment. However, this has always been a condition of bearing the Jackson family name and growing up famous. “No one asked me if I wanted to go into show business. It was expected,” she told Rolling Stone. “When I said I wanted to act, my father said, ‘There’s more money in singing. You’ll sing.’ Now I’m grateful, because my heart is in singing. But to get to that gratitude took twenty-five years of often feeling lost and alone.” The album is filled with confessional moments that can be deemed necessary in the process of letting go of pain.
The song “You” evokes an image of Janet looking in the mirror and calling herself out on her personal struggles. It’s a testament to owning one’s character flaws and taking the necessary steps to be your best self with some tough love. She made the album she wanted to make and, for the first time, she felt free.
She’d grown dangerously accustomed to flashing empty smiles. “That was just my way of getting through life,” she admitted in Ebony. “I guess I did it so well that I began to believe it.” Despite her own personal struggles, she’d made the conscious decision to not only explore her range of emotions and demons, but also tap into worldly issues. “Free Xone” served as a song in support of the LGBT community. “I’m singing about accepting yourself and living in a world—a free zone—where the world accepts you,” she told Rolling Stone. The track managed to incorporate a funk and electronic sound with an impactful message.
She also challenged the public perception with “Tonight’s the Night”; a clean reworking of Rod Stewart’s hit of the same name, that left many questioning her sexual preference. One of the album’s most important tracks, “Together Again”, although an upbeat tune, pays tribute to friends she’d lost over the years to AIDS. She initially had pushback from her label for her decision to do the song but it became an international hit. Janet also explored domestic abuse with “What About.” Written by Janet and her husband at the time, Rene Elizondo Jr., it’s an in-depth, emotional look at an unhealthy relationship that she admitted held traces of her past, as well as Rene’s.
What about the times you lied to me?
What about the times you said no one would want me?
What about all the shit you’ve done to me? — “What About?”
Between the heavy subject matter of the album was still her ability to let loose that her fans loved. “Got Til It’s Gone”, featuring Q-Tip, was the groove necessary to provide balance, but still not without a little controversy. Although Janet’s team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis are credited on production, it was actually produced by the legendary J Dilla and The Ummah production collective. The snub lead to Dilla slightly reworking the Joni Mitchell-sampled track, dubbing it the “revenge remix.” Controversy aside, expressing her sexual appetite was also important. On “Rope Burn,” she toys with the pleasures of bondage. She yearns for the company of her counterpart on the album’s third single “I Get Lonely,” and on “Anything,” she’ll do just that to fulfill his every fantasy—a far-cry from “Let’s Wait Awhile” indeed.
With her new creative freedom came skepticism. Janet embarked on her The Velvet Rope Tour in March of 1998 in support of the album, which had sold over four million copies. This was considered a failure to her own standard because it was well behind the success of her previous work. She dismissed the criticism, knowing that what she was embarking on was a personal journey and the sales would’ve only been a minor bonus. “I have no control over how many people are going to buy this album or see my shows. That’s in God’s hands,” she told Rolling Stone. “The album is still there; it hasn’t fallen off the way I think people thought…To me, I’ve succeeded, cause I made the album I wanted to make.” She was able to block out the negativity and take a much-needed derailment from public expectation.
“I’m very fortunate. I can honestly say that for the first time I really like myself. I really do. And now I’m working at learning to love myself.” —Janet, Ebony, ’98
Listening to this album 20 years later makes for an experience. Losing yourself can be a constant up-hill battle that is often overlooked, especially with the expectation that we’ve built for artists to live up to. Minor flaws in its content were there, but here was a woman getting to know herself in front of the world and, for a second, saying fuck what the perception is, it’s “me” time—a healthy choice that helped her prevail. Marvin Gaye once said: “There are still times I feel unhappy and I must smile, and there are times I want to cry and I must laugh…people rarely see the real Marvin Gaye.” I think, at some point, Janet identified with this, and more than she would’ve liked to. “I have the need to feel real special too…work in progress,” she whispered concluding the album—an early testament to reclaiming your time.