Control, Rhythm Nation, and janet. may have been bigger albums with more hits, but The Velvet Rope represents Janet Jackson at her creative peak. Released 20 years ago on Oct. 7, 1997, the LP — yet another successful collaboration with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis — remains her most personal and powerful work. As Miss Jackson continues her recent return with her State of the World Tour, EW ranks all 16 songs on The Velvet Rope — minus the interludes — in honor of its anniversary.
16. “Tonight’s the Night”
While other Velvet Rope tracks borrow elements from ’70s classics, this is the only full-blown cover. It’s creamy sweetness, but the most interesting thing about this remake of Rod Stewart’s 1976 hit is that Jackson doesn’t change the object of her affection from female to male in the lyrics — until a gender flip toward the end.
By The Velvet Rope, Jackson had mastered the art of the sexy slow jam — from Control’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” to Rhythm Nation’s “Someday Is Tonight” to janet.’s “Any Time, Any Place.” Although “Anything” isn’t in the same league as those tunes, it keeps the pleasure purring.
14. “Every Time”
Playing like a sequel to “Again,” this piano ballad can’t match that janet. hit. Still, its fragile beauty reveals Jackson at her most vulnerable on an album that shows she can be both tough and tender.
13. “My Need”
Mixing in bits from Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” this lush and lusty track serves as a fitting homage to the Motown family that included Jackson’s brothers.
12. “Can’t Be Stopped”
This hidden track harks back to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. While its social consciousness feels more Rhythm Nation than Velvet Rope, this pre-Black Lives Matter protest song ends the album with a take-a-knee defiance.
Well before Tinder, Bumble, and OKCupid came along, Jackson explored the challenges of looking for love in cyberspace. Amidst a skittering trip-hop beatscape, she finds that the whole process can just intensity the loneliness. Even if the technology has been upgraded, the same sentiment still applies 20 years later.
10. “Free Xone”
Long a supporter of the LGBTQ community, Jackson takes a stand against homophobia on this funky flight. One of the most complex tracks on the album, shifting moods and rhythms, it finds Janet employing a spoken-word delivery to give the message of the lyric maximum impact.
Although it is followed by the hidden track “Can’t Be Stopped,” “Special” provides the true denouement of The Velvet Rope. Set to a piano-led lilt, it alludes to some pain in Jackson’s past while concluding that “we’re all born with specialness inside of us” — even if you don’t come from pop royalty.
8. “Go Deep”
Bringing some levity to the heavier themes of the album, “Go Deep” is the only real party song on The Velvet Rope. Packing a bass thump, it also captures the fun spirit of camaraderie Jackson has always shared with her dancers, affectionately known as “The Kids.”
7. “Rope Burn”
Taking the sensuality of janet. to a kinkier place, “Rope Burn” finds Jackson getting all tied up in naughty knots. Riding a bump-and-grind groove, it shows just how much Michael’s little sister had learned from Erotica-era Madonna.
“Unleash this scared that you’ve grown into/You can not run for you can’t hide from you,” Jackson intones on this searing takedown of self-hate, which seemed as if it might have been directed at her brother Michael. Sampling from War’s “The Cisco Kid,” it makes you take a hard look in the mirror.
5. “Velvet Rope”
On the probing title track, Jackson examines our “special need to feel that we belong.” With Vanessa-Mae on violin, it’s an orchestral funk workout — one of Jam and Lewis’ most ambitious productions here — that means to free your mind as well as your body.
4. “I Get Lonely”
As big of a pop artist as she had become, Jackson stayed true to her R&B heart on this hit, which kept her soul cred in good stead on The Velvet Rope. Taking its cues from ’90s R&B groups like Jodeci and Blackstreet, this ballad ups the ante from Rhythm Nation’s “Lonely,” making you feel just how much she wants “no one but you.”
3. “What About”
Just as her brother Michael rocked out on “Beat It,” “Dirty Diana” and “Black or White,” Janet got heads banging with “Black Cat,” “If” and this Velvet Rope track. One of the boldest things she’s ever done, the song tackles domestic abuse with an intensity that goes from quiet to kick-ass.
2. “Got ’Til It’s Gone”
Of all the savvy samples on The Velvet Rope, the most valuable one is the vocal hook from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” that provides the chorus of “Got ’Til It’s Gone.” It’s so essential to the song that Mitchell practically deserves a feature credit. Instead, that goes to guest rapper Q-Tip, whose inimitably cool flow helps to make this chill-out groove one of the dopest tracks of Jackson’s career.
1. “Together Again”
The album’s biggest hit, which became Jackson’s eighth No. 1 single, is an unforgettable remembrance of those lost to AIDS. Instead of getting all weepy, she turns this into an uplifting celebration that, pumping to a disco-house beat, dreams of a next-life reunion dancing in moonlight with no more pain and no more worries. Amen.