By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
As usual, Janet knows how to deliver a sexy song--fame is about seduction, after all. If the fuck numbers here don't have the slashing electricity of "You" or "What About," they've still got mad finesse. You don't have to credit Janet's s/m flirtation in "Rope Burn," her lesbian flirtation in "Tonight's the Night," or her queer-friendly broadmindedness in "Free Xone" to appreciate their propaganda value. She's certainly not competing with Lil' Kim or Foxy Brown, but Janet projects a ripe, playful raunchiness: "Tonight/I feel so tight." "I'll be your best," she promises. "I will do anything for you." As consumers, we expect no less.
Throughout the record, Jam and Lewis weave Janet's creamy vocals through the choicest borrowed riffs: Diana Ross, Archie Bell, Ashford and Simpson, Lynn Collins, and, most brilliantly, Joni Mitchell, whose repeated snippet on "Got 'Til It's Gone" sends the song straight to pop heaven. But that's where Janet's been ever since 1986's Control, when she made it clear that she'd learned more than dance steps from her brothers. Combining fierce determination, an increasingly assured vocal style, and the sort of private drama necessary for modern celebrity, Janet established herself as the new, improved Jackson, anticipating Michael's decline and eclipse. Her collaboration with Jam and Lewis has allowed her to recapitulate Motown's suave orchestration, disco's hyper optimism, and postmod r&b's cold grooves through both canny quotes and cannier synthesization. Like any performer who's grown up in public, she totes a lot of baggage, but it's this history that grounds her and allows her to experiment, to play, to fuck with us, without having to reinvent herself each time out. So she's landed in a pantheon that only Michael's mentor Diana Ross could have prepared her for. She must feel the heat from rising stars like Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Björk, Mariah Carey, and Alanis Morrisette, but Janet cruises in more-rarefied air. Like Madonna, and with few other peers, she combines a pure pop sensibility with ambition, vulnerability, freakishness, and extraordinary savvy. She's--in her inadequate word--special.
On "Rope Burn," she asks us to "come into my velvet room." We won't probe that metaphor too deeply, but it's clearly far beyond that velvet rope. Janet wants to make us very comfortable, to confer "specialness" upon us. Even if she has an uneasy relationship with celebrity (who doesn't?), she wants to spread it around.