Life as a Jackson never looked fun, but things seemed particularly tricky in the mid-80s. The siblings could once at least pretend they had equal billing. Now, one of them is the world’s biggest pop star and the rest are surplus to requirements. You can sense the desperation after Michael nixes the Jacksons’ 1984 reunion tour: Jermaine’s dreadful single with actor Pia Zadora; LaToya posing for Playboy; the Michael-less Jacksons album that nobody buys. Then there was little sister Janet, who improvised percussion on the Off the Wall demos, but saw her own career stillborn: what price the youngest Jackson, with her two unremarkable solo albums – the first released a matter of weeks before Thriller – in the face of Michael’s overwhelming triumph?
By 1986’s Control (★★★★★), Jackson had severed professional ties with her family. It arrived just as her brother’s success was tarnishing, with the first reports that there was something terribly wrong with him. More importantly, her new album was better than his. Bad was audibly calculated, a doomed attempt to beat Thriller’s sales. Control sounded like the future. Producers Jam and Lewis were proven hit-makers, but their hits had previously emulated trends in hip black pop: Alexander O’Neal’s sophisticated loverman shtick; Cherelle’s Prince-esque I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On; the SOS Band’s electro-influenced Just Be Good to Me. On Control, they went for broke, creating their own sound that had as much to do with the Art of Noise’s sampler experiments as it did R&B: industrial-strength rhythms, wiry, staccato electronics, orchestral stabs whose artificiality was the whole point.
It would have sounded avant garde had every song not been so exquisitely crafted: hooks on hooks, verses that could have been choruses. A woman who two years before had been meekly duetting with Cliff Richard suddenly came over like black America’s answer to Madonna: empowered, sexy, whip-smart, unwilling to put up with Men and Their Bullshit. It sold 10m copies, spawned a superfluous remix album (★★) – also reissued here – and shattered one of Michael’s records: its singles spent more consecutive weeks on the US chart than those from Thriller.
1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (★★★★★) understandably declined to fix what wasn’t broke, with a lumpy bit of faux-metal called Black Cat the solitary departure. It’s effectively Control with the grandiose ambitions that tend to emerge when an artist has sold 10m albums: pretentious title, accompanying short movie, 20 tracks, eight of them spoken-word interludes. In hindsight, its much-vaunted social consciousness feels a little overemphasised – it only applies to the opening three tracks – but it is fantastic nonetheless: tough, funky and driving – the second of a perfect pair.
Four years later, janet. (★★★★) arrived amid priceless publicity: Jackson posing topless for Rolling Stone, newspapers breathlessly reporting that her new record deal was the most lucrative in history. But, as with Rhythm Nation’s politicking, the album’s USP – Janet Jackson singing about sex – feels overcooked. It’s tame, even by 1993’s standards – the previous year, Madonna had herself photographed hang-gliding naked – and some of it is actively excruciating: Throb’s awkward patchwork of moans the first sign that the more explicit Jackson’s work got, the less sexy it would be.
Some of janet. has dated in a way that its two predecessors haven’t – the post-grunge styling of Stax cover What’ll I Do speaks volumes about its era – and it’s a confused album, half glossy drivetime ballads, half a thrilling, pop-facing take on the dense racket the Bomb Squad conjured for Public Enemy, one that daringly buries Jackson’s vocals in breakbeats, squealing guitar and samples of opera, jazz and the Supremes. At their best, the songs are magisterial: That’s the Way Love Goes, Funky Big Band, Again. When she subsequently duetted with her now scandal-racked brother on 1995’s Scream, it felt like she was doing him a favour.
But Jackson had her own troubles, which seeped into 1997’s sprawling The Velvet Rope (★★★): disquietingly, it amped up the sex alongside songs about domestic violence, depression and her eating disorder. While the former was as unconvincing as ever, the latter were pretty compelling, not least What About’s relentless excoriation of a violent ex. The music tended to trip-hoppy slow jams, but Got Til It’s Gone’s Joni Mitchell sample was irresistible, while on the song Empty, producers Jam and Lewis made one final experimental hurrah, playing a frantic drum’n’bass rhythm on a Roland 808.
Muddled as it was, The Velvet Rope was Jackson’s last great album. Released at the height of R&B’s early-noughties sonic envelope-pushing phase, 2001’s All for You (★★) had its moments, the Carly Simon-sampling Son of a Gun among them, but it felt forced and lightweight when newcomers Aaliyah, Brandy and Kelis sounded as strange and futuristic as Jackson once had. It was the beginning of an ongoing creative spiral. Still, no one gets to hold on to the zeitgeist forever, and before her grip slackened she had more than proved her point: more than one Jackson mattered.
This week Alexis listened to
Fresh from collaborating with Mark Ronson, Lykke Li’s new EP fits perfectly into his “sad bangers” concept: Two Nights is part mournful piano ballad, part high-octane dancefloor pop.