Janet Jackson’s once-invincible Rhythm Nation Army now faces possibly insurmountable challenges on the battlefield of pop-cultural opinion—Hype Williams video at eleven. Insurgent troops like Beyoncé, Ciara, Rihanna, Amerie, Christina, etc. have successfully replicated Janet’s dancefloor war strategy, leaving the aging superpower at a tactical disadvantage. Will she withdraw or continue her booty-shaking campaign? 20 Y.O. represents Jackson’s optimistic national address.
Known for thematic pop albums, Janet’s been stuck on sex for three records, and it’s getting tired. I like to imagine Janet going down as black America’s first Marilyn Monroe–level sex symbol, generations to come viewing her countless scantily clad photos with a detached historical reverence. But antics like her fellatio blow-by-blow on “Warmth” (from her last CD, Damita Ho. . . uh, Jo)—or, of course, the more infamous wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl—have been testing and failing the limits of consumer voyeurism for albums (and years) now.
But sexuality doesn’t sink 20 Y.O. as much as the beats do. Jermaine Dupri (Jan’s producer, boyfriend, and urban label head) girds “So Excited” with “Rockit” scratches, coaching guest-rapper Khia to sound like Da Brat on the naughty hook. Serviceable enough, it’s surprisingly the highlight of an album marketed as an homage to Control, Janet’s r&b benchmark of 20 years ago (or 20 Y.A.). Not that it’s a total failure. Electric guitars and timbales are used to great effect on “This Body,” and the Bambaataa electrofunk of “Get It Out Me” gets honorable mention. Standing tallest above the rest, though, is “Enjoy,” a feel-good rave with harmonizing kids on the outro that recalls the whispery singer’s freewheelin’ mode (e.g., “Escapade” or All for You‘s underrated “Better Days”). Raindrops have adorned her killer ballads since “Making Love in the Rain,” and the new “Love 2 Love” comes complete, marking 20 Y.O.‘s slow-jam standout. Not bad, but the element missing in Janet’s music ever since The Velvet Rope marked her artistic high nine years ago is any sense of effortlessness. Gone lately is the kind of carefree air that Ciara’s brilliant “Oh” packed in abundance two years back—Ciara, a Southern chanteuse who truly is 20 years old.