There was a time when Janet Jackson turned up her nose at nasty boys, nasty cars, even at nastiness itself. ”I’m not a prude/I just want some respect,” she sang in the 1986 hit ”Nasty.” ”’Cause privacy is my middle name … ”
My, how things have changed. These days, Jackson is obsessed with the nasty and doesn’t care who knows it. Duck behind The Velvet Rope and you’ll find her singing about all sorts of sexual things, from casual encounters and computer liaisons to bondage and bisexuality. She’s so single-minded in her pursuit of prurient pleasures that in one of the album’s between-song interludes, a girlfriend warns, ”Your coochie gon’ swell up and fall apart.”
Coming as it does after the unabashed sensuality of 1993’s janet., this crotch-level focus shouldn’t come as too great a surprise. But the heavy-breathing innuendo of janet. songs like ”Throb” and ”The Body That Loves You” is nothing compared with the spell-it-out frankness of these new songs. It’s one thing for ”Throb” to pant about ”your body/Pressed against my body,” quite another for Rope‘s ”Go Deep” to insist, ”Gotta take him home/When I get him alone/I’ll make him scream and moan.”
Still, the listeners most likely to be upset by the album will doubtless worry less about its degree of explicitness than the kind of sex Jackson is exploring. In ”Free Xone,” for instance, Jackson translates the usual boy-meets-girl scenario as ”Girl meets boy/Girl loses boy/Girl gets cute girl back,” summing it up with the phrase ”Free to be/Who you really are.” Then there’s her cover of Rod Stewart’s loss-of-virginity epic, ”Tonight’s the Night” — never have the lyrics ”’Cause I love you girl/Ain’t nobody gonna stop us now” seemed so brazen.
Shocked? Such sentiments may seem provocative on the printed page, but Jackson’s pro-sex proselytizing is soothingly seductive when oozing from the speakers. Some of that is because the words are rarely as front and center as the funky, luxuriant rhythm beds built by producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. For instance, ”Empty” may, lyrically, look to be about computer sex; but as it comes through the speakers, it seems to have more to do with the luscious textures Jam & Lewis create by contrasting Jackson’s gauzy harmony vocals with a dense swirl of samples and sequenced synth pulses.
Mostly, though, it’s Jackson’s delivery that keeps the album out of the gutter. Rather than stress the nudge-wink naughtiness of the lyrics, Jackson would rather sing about sex as if it were simply a fact of life. That’s not to say she’s dispassionate about the subject; her throaty purr on ”Rope Burn” makes it easy to understand the pull of bondage. But neither is she entirely comfortable playing the role of libertine, making sure it’s clear that ”My Need” — which is otherwise quite explicit about just what Jackson needs — is ultimately more about love than sex.
In fact, it’s the emotional component of sex, rather than the act itself, that seems Jackson’s real concern. That’s one of the reasons it’s a mistake to judge this album on the basis of its lyric sheet. However much ”Go Deep” may read like a hymn to hedonism, what it sounds like is a song of pride in which Jackson and crew celebrate not sex but the confidence that allows them to act sexual when they feel the urge. Likewise, the gently throbbing house beat beneath ”Together Again” keeps this tribute to a dead friend from sounding as lachrymose as it looks on the page.
Jam & Lewis deserve credit for a lot of that; it’s their production that most clearly articulates the emotional core of Jackson’s songs. It would be hard to imagine ”What About” having the same impact without the drama implicit in the way their arrangement moves from the quiet-storm tenderness of the verse (”He kissed me he said/I wanna spend my life with you”) and the industrial-strength fury of the chorus (”What about the times you hit my face … ”). But the album’s most affecting moments tend to be its subtlest, as when the chords in the chorus to ”Every Time” modulate into melancholy as Jackson observes that ”every time I fall in love/It seems to never last.”
In the end, the most daring thing about The Velvet Rope isn’t its sex talk but its honesty. Tempting as it may be to compare the album to similarly sultry stuff like Madonna’s Erotica, it’s much closer in spirit to the unabashed emotionalism of Joni Mitchell’s Blue. That’s because the most revealing moments here have to do with loneliness and vulnerability, not sexual preference. Maybe that’s why ”Got ‘Til It’s Gone” takes so much strength from its sample of Mitchell’s ”Big Yellow Taxi,” and why the self-actualization anthem ”Special” ends with Jackson describing herself as a ”work in progress.” Personally, I can’t wait to see how she comes out. A