I dream about being born so yesterday that the handful of dirty words and "adult situations" lined up behind The Velvet Rope--the new album by the Janet Jackson Spectacle, Featuring Janet Jackson--would seem groundbreaking and transgressive. But we've heard Prince. Now I suspect That Guy is a kook, but when it comes to sexy beats, outré freakiness, and genderplay, he was an iconic firestorm back when Janet was a still a wet blanket (remember "Let's Wait Awhile"?).
But hey, he's an Artist. Artists suit their talents to their ideologies; stars suit their ideologies to their talents. It may be that Janet's investigating Kink out of a star's need to touch the dirty ground, to affirm her humanness, blah blah blah. Doesn't matter: Musically, the libertinette act is purely incidental; she could be singing about French economic theory. More importantly, the pillow-talking vocals required by her sexed-up persona solve a deep problem. Yes we adore her. Yes we're moved by her. But Janet can't exactly belt it out. A gospel shouter with a heaven-storming voice she ain't; her register is more garden of earthly delights. A media come-on, sure--but mainly her reincarnation is an excuse for Janet to back off the soul sirenizing, to shoot up every song with that quiver of eros she discovered in 1990 and perfected three years later in the quietly sultry opium purr of "That's The Way Love Goes."
The role of media-kissed boudoir belletrist is the third of Janet's career to date, and easily the most taking. The Tiger Beat-nik of the first two albums couldn't fill the space of adolescence with enough vocal zeal to simulate hormonal hijinks; she was no Debbie Gibson, let alone Shanice. The force-funker of Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 located the groove (thank you Jam & Lewis), but the vocals were all over the map: martial but fractured; floaty and thin; all personality and no notes. During the late '80s she was a car-radio chameleon: moment-by-moment brilliant and liquid, but with no ongoing current. She hadn't found her voice yet and, given her gifts, she was singing too much. Finally, with "Love Will Never Do Without You," she snuck up on the new style: all sweetened air, achy desire, and come-hither sensibility. Borrowing Kink Lite(TM) lensman Herb Ritts to do the dirty work, the striking video hustled her slimmed-down, hottened-up physique. And voilà, the design of the decade was graphically clear: Less is more.
Which brings us to the The Velvet Rope. It's sort of a preschool for scandal, with the lyrics promising an eroticon of cybersex, queer positivity, and mild bondage. Surely the title track's power chord is descended from the golden rope in Prince's "Shockadelica" ("When this woman sez dance you dance"). But it's the mix that's a sexy motherfucker: Instrumental, sampled, and abstractly electro tones come and go with sharp attack and sharper decay, appearing out of--and vanishing into--aggressively blank spaces. It's a precipitous sound--each noise poised on the edge of nothing.
To borrow a line of reasoning from funkboys the Jaz: "From the dope beat, you seek the principle." That would be Janet's all-too-human voice: coming and going, melting into air. Amidst a generation of semifunky divas crushing tracks with their vocal boom, Janet's content to lie lushly in the cut. She's the principle that organizes the noise, and the particle around which songs become pearlescent. On the lead single "Got Till It's Gone," Janet spends 65 seconds total on the mic--about the same amount of time given to Q-Tip's guest rhyming. But in the same song, Joni Mitchell's voice gets almost 100 sampled seconds. It's a song of love gone, and the arrangement worries the problem languorously: Janet tries this, tries that, coaxes and cajoles, puts on Joni, turns to Tip. Nothing brings the beloved back. Playing hide-and-seek with the listener, Janet delivers the yearning of desire--the now- you-see-it, now-you-don't--without showing us the object of desire.
Similarly, "Free Xone" is lyrically sparse and simple, gender-flipping the clichés of romantic plot: "Girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets cute girl back," and so on. Much of the vocal is spoken, some of it shouted--none of that Toni Braxton chanteuse crap. Instead, the meaning's in the mix: Janet; a spare but surprising rhythm track; live and digitized instruments; three interwoven, classic samples. This entrancing assembly cuts up funk clichés and pastes them into new configurations. Hey, isn't that exactly what the song's about?
Inevitably, the track least interested in trying new positions, "Together Again," is the most pleasing on the album and the one destined to be the huge single. Playing to every sweet tooth, it's got a candy-hearted melody and sparklingly unambitious production. And it's another tribute song (mark this down: One day, everyone with a dead friend will get a Billboard #1). Yet, as flawless a single as this is, it's oddly out of place: an angelic song in the midst of a secular album.
The true freak-show moment is her cover of "Tonight's the Night," by soft-core troubadour Rod Stewart. (Pass it on: She's covering Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" on her next album.) Though Janet does her share of singing, she disappears here more than ever--this time into Neverland. Janet's voice has never sounded so literally familiar, and so available to displacement; it's hard not to suppose that she's channeling her brother: "Stay away from my window/Stay away from my backdoor too/Disconnect the telephone line." And how badly does America want to hear Mikey finally loosen up and talk dirty? Despite the lesbian chic of Janet hewing to Rod's male lyric, listening to the former Little Mr. Presley croon, "Don't say a word, my virgin child" is the only truly transgressive moment on the album.
As entrancing an album as it is, the most twisted thing about The Velvet Rope is how it eludes genre-fication. We're used to thinking of Janet as straight-up pop-soul, but she sounds nothing like the Braxtons, Careys, or Vogues...much less Boys II Men or Ushers. The crown of R&B, of which she should be an inheritor, rests in the court of Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly, with Aaliyah the princess and Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony the ragamuffin jesters.
Finally doing her own thing, Janet is left in a genre of her own. Of course, this leaves her vulnerable to the Houston (we have a) Problem: the trap of playing the star for stardom's sake. And no amount of shockadelica can solve that. In the end, it's the impure, flawed sweetness of Janet's voice that keeps her human, the velvet rope that keeps her tied to the things of this world.