In retrospect, the most startling aspect of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl-flasher moment was how unstartling it was. As amply demonstrated that evening, she works so hard at being sexy and provocative that she’s rarely either. Something about Jackson — her impenetrable demeanor, her candy-apple face — doesn’t jibe with her image at its sauciest. That’s never been truer than on Damita Jo, the latest in a series of albums on which Jackson strives, in the least subtle ways possible, to affirm she’s just a regular grown-up girl who loves to do the deed as much as possible.
The song titles alone — ”Sexhibition,” ”Moist,” ”I Want You” — relay that message. So do the lyrics, which she exhales in her trademark breathy coo. In various tracks, she sings of ”foreplay…makin’ sweet love,” ”humpin’ to some old school,” and taking her partner on a ”sexcapade.” In case the theme needs reinforcing, she pants during ”All Nite (Don’t Stop),” which lyrically and musically is a knockoff of Britney Spears at her later-period horniest, complete with Swedish producers.
None of which is to say there’s anything wrong with making an album out of bedroom romps and fantasies; entire credible songs and careers have been built on that subject. But in Jackson’s case, the hammered-home angle comes with more baggage than a suitcase full of nipple medallions. Nearly 20 years ago, on ”Control,” Jackson asserted herself as a feisty, spunky young woman unafraid to assert her independence, determination, and authority. In contrast to her shrouded older brother, she sought to portray herself as warmer, more open, and more open-minded.
All these years later, though, Janet has turned out to be even more of a Jackson than we thought. Although she’s nearly or entirely nude on all her recent albums, she nevertheless reveals very little about herself. Thematically, ”Damita Jo” is essentially the same record she’s been making since 1993’s ”janet.,” her first overtly carnal work. Though padded with the usual filler that dominates her albums (namely, sugarcoated ballads), ”janet.” At least represented a fresh start. By now, though, her endless wanna-bump-all-night emoting sounds one-dimensional and juvenile, a far cry from the serious-adult-artist image she likes to present. These days, Michael discloses more in his angry, paranoid musical hissy fits than his sister does in her own songs. All we know about Janet, as embodied by ”Damita Jo,” is that she thinks sex is good (and that Damita is her middle name).
This time, Jackson’s stab at a sexy album also lacks a certain va-va-vroom. The tracks, many produced by her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, have the sumptuous, homogenized creaminess we’ve come to expect from her. Occasionally, as in the sputtery ”Strawberry Bounce” or the cuddly ”My Baby” (featuring Kanye West), the songs stay with you, even if the beats don’t kick in until ”SloLove,” the 20th of 22 tracks. But for the most part, the songs are stylized set pieces — the furthest thing from steamy R&B — and they evaporate as you listen to them. With light-as-Caribbean-air concoctions like ”Island Life” and spoken-word segments in which she confesses to loving ”the beach,” ”the humidity,” and the island of Anguilla, the record’s midsection turns into a singing travel-agency pamphlet.
Jackson’s uttered musings crop up throughout, sandwiched between many of the songs. Her observations on life, love, and, er, sand are meant to convey depth, profundity, and intimacy. Even though the remarks — ”I come from a musical family,” we’re all ”so many people rolled into one,” ”it all comes down to love” — are more mystifying (and unintentionally amusing) than insightful, they are at least an attempt to communicate her inner thoughts. Otherwise, we’re left with the sound of a nearing-40 woman singing sweet nothings along the lines of ”No matter what they say, baby/They just don’t know my baby and how I feel about you.” Maybe Jackson ultimately doesn’t want to divulge anything, or perhaps there’s just not much in her brain to impart. Whatever the reason, ”Damita Jo” suffers from substance malfunction.