Album Review: Janet Jackson, “The Velvet Rope” (1997)

It’s really funny to look back at some of the music I listened to when I was younger.  The majority of it was pop music- pop princesses and boybands were the rage when I was tweleve- but there were a few electic oddballs thrown in there; artists and albums that I’m not sure my mother realized were WAY beyond my maturity level at the time.

I mean, I was only ten when Janet Jackson released her sixth studio album, The Velvet Rope, but my mom let me buy it, nonetheless.  I think she didn’t realize that Ms. Jackson was extremely nasty at this point in her career (just keep reading for more evidence), and figured it would be harmless music for a ten year old to enjoy.  Listening to The Velvet Rope now, I’m shocked by just how risqué and mature the music was, but I suppose most of it probably went over my head, anyway.

Jackson released the disc after coming through a deep depression, and wanted to explore a concept album dealing with some of the things she went through.  Much of that is explored through the dark melodies and deeply sexually lyrics, though the concept does get lost in the inane  interludes and feeble filler tracks.

The disc begins with an intro called Twisted Elegance.  A line of static plays underneath Jackson’s husky voice as she speaks of us all having a “special need to feel that we belong”.  The album’s title track follows immediately after, echoing the same lyrics.  The futuristic-backing music (packed with electric guitar and lots of synthesizers) makes up the majority of the busy production, but some of it is stripped back during the verses, allowing for more room for Jackson’s breathy vocals.  It’s really odd to hear her singing voice back to back with her speaking voice; while her speaking voice is deep and throaty, her vocals are most times light, and airy, as if she’s almost on the verge of running out of breath.  I don’t particularly like her affected vocal delivery, but it works well enough on this track.

There’s a heavy rock influence on this album, and it’s especially apparent on songs like You.  The fast-paced melody and angry chorus (“You gotta mean what you say/You gotta say what you mean/Tryin’ to please everyone/Sacrifice your own needs”) sounds like something that’d fit perfectly on an aggressive female rocker’s album, and Jackson plays the role perfectly.   The lyrics, about someone who is constantly putting on a front, are decent, yet nothing revolutionary and it’s actually appalling to see how many people it took to write the track (11 people, including Jackson and her songwriting/production team, James Harris III, Terry Lewis, and René Elizondo, Jr.).   Jackson returns to a more traditional R&B sound with Got ‘Til It’s Gone, which was also the album’s lead single.  The song is a definite groove track: the melody is sparse, mostly made up a simple hip-hop beat, and a turntable scratching in the chorus.  Jackson samples Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi, during the chorus (using the refrain, “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?”), and rapper Q-Tip offers up a slick rap near the end.  The song is so smoothly produced and performed that it still holds up even now, 16 years later.

Another single from the album was Together Again, a lively pop track that Jackson wrote for a friend who passed away from AIDS. The track is catchy and fun, but was definitely overplayed when it was released and for several years thereafter; I can even recall hearing it played during the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco a few years ago.  The joyful chorus (“Everywhere I go/Every smile I see/I know you are there/Smilin’ back at me/Dancin’ in moonlight/I know you are free/’Cause I can see your star/Shinin’ down on me”) is pleasant, though the over-cheery melody and saccharine lyrics are a bit much and the song has become a novelty; something you’d hear at a parade and smile along to (or drunkenly dance in the streets to, as my friends and I did), but not anything you’d genuinely turn to when in the mood to just sit back and enjoy some good music.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like the sentiment of the song, but it definitely comes too close to being over the top and corny.

The best single from the album is the seductive R&B track, I Get So Lonely.  This is honestly Jackson at her finest; again, the polished production goes a long way in making the song so memorable (gotta love those snaps that go on throughout the track!), and Jackson’s airy vocals actually sound sexy as she purrs for her lover to return (“I get so lonely/Can’t let just anybody hold me/You are the one that lives in me, my dear/Want no one but you”).  This song is a nearly perfect pop/R&B track- flawless production, catchy lyrics, memorable melody, nice vocals- it’s no wonder it was a number one hit.

Oddly enough, one of my favorite songs when I was ten and first purchased this album was the highly provocative ballad, Rope Burn.  I’m certain I didn’t know why Janet had a rope burn or why she was begging for someone to “tie me up/tie me down”, and I think I mostly just liked the catchy chorus more than anything.  I can still appreciate the track now, though I’m unable to listen to the blatantly sexual lyrics (“Make me moan real loud/Take off my clothes/No one has to know/Whisperin I wanna feel a soft rope burn”) without a wry smile.  Still, Jackson plays the role of a seductress quite perfectly; her breathy delivery fits in as she literally moans and whimpers throughout the verses.

The length of this album is a real problem for me.  There are 22 tracks (including the intro and interludes) and goes on for nearly 90 minutes.  Sometimes I feel like I have musical ADD, but that aside, I just think that an album that goes on for an hour and a half is a bit indulgent and entirely too long.  Even though there are still good songs on the album, I find it hard to navigate to them after already hearing six or seven songs from the disc; since I’m not the biggest Janet Jackson fan, I can only take so much of her wispy vocals before I get bored of the whole thing.

Jackson obviously got the memo that I’m sick of her vocal delivery and spices things up a bit with What About. The track starts off quietly and innocently enough, as Jackson sweetly describes a romantic evening with her lover, before loud electric guitar pushes in and she begins yelling, “What about the times you lied to me?  What about the times you said no one would want me? What about all the s–t you’ve done to me? What about that, what about that?”  The flashy, guitar-heavy production reminds me of something that her brother would’ve done, but the female Jackson pulls it off well, sounding appropriately angry and bitter as she screams to her abusive lover.  I quite like this song- it’s particularly useful for listening to if you’re in an angry or vengeful mood.

The rest of the album is a little less satisfying.  There’s an overabundance of sexual songs on this disc, and I’m not saying that because I’m a prude- it’s just that I don’t want to hear Janet Jackson come to an orgasm during an interlude (Speaker Phone), nor do I want to hear the explicit lines on My Need, and I’m definitely tired of hearing about her sexual needs by the watered down hip-hop track, Go Deep.  The theme worked perfectly on Rope Burn, but I feel like I know way more than I ever wanted to know about Jackson’s sex life, needs and desires by the end of the album, and it’s a definite case of TMI.  Jackson even does a cover or Rod Stewart’s classic, Tonight’s The Night, and even though it’s another song about sex, at least Stewart’s lyrics are a bit more classic, and Jackon’s quiet, child-like vocals sound less lascivious and actually sweet.  Of course, because Jackson seemed hell-bent at the time on reinventing her imagine to a more convertervisial one, she implies that the song is now about a threesome (instead of a girl losing her virginity, as it was in the original), by changing the pronouns throughout (“‘Cause I love you girl…/’Cause I love you boy”), and even starting off the song saying, “This is just between me and you…and you.”  Oh, Janet…you so nasty.

Though I applaud Free Xone for having an anti-homophobic theme, the racy production (there’s a whole lot going on in the background- horns, latin instruments…it’s all too much) distracts from any sort of important message that Jackson was trying to convey.  Actually, the song reminds me of a lot of the stuff Prince did during the early 90’s- the track sounds remarkably like Sexy M.F.  Empty and Every Timesound almost the same musically, though the former is like a speed up version of the latter, and is pretty forgettable overall.  Every Time is a stripped down ballad, which calls to mind some of Jackson’s early work.   The bittersweet chorus (“I’m scared to fall in love/Afraid to love so fast/’Cause everytime I fall in love/It seems to never last/But every time your love is near/And every time I’m filled with fear/’Cause everytime I see your face/My heart does begin to race everytime”) is sentimental and endearing and Jackson’s vocals work nicely on the simplistic ballad.

The rest of the album is a plethora of unneeded interludes.  Every other song seems to have one, and the reason why they are so superflolous is that the majority of them are only a few seconds long- Jackson saying something “meaningful” before going into a song, an answer machine message, the dial-up tone on an old internet connection- it’s all so gratiutious and does nothing more than stretch out the album even longer.

Finally things come to an end with Special, a surprisingly beautiful ballad.   Though Jackson’s vocals sound thinner than usual (it seems to be a stretch for her to hold some of the notes during the verses), it doesn’t distract much from the alluring melody.  The lyrics also verge on the edge of getting too touchy-feely, therapy-session-esque (“We need to remember/That love lies deep within ourselves…/We must learn/We’re all born/With specialness inside of us/I have the need to feel real special too”), but I still like the encourgaing, positivity of the song.   A “hidden” track is introduced a few seconds after the song ends, titled Can’t Be Stopped.  It lyrically continues on in the same vein as the track before it (“You must remember that/We were born with blood of kings and queens/And can’t be stopped/Stay stronger my sister you can’t be stopped/No, you can’t be stopped”), but the music is jazzy and livelier.

In the end, The Velvet Rope is a strong effort from Janet Jackson.  There’s definitely no doubt that by her sixth album, she’s matured as an artist and just a person in general; the subject matter on the album is more in depth, and though at times a bit over the top, still heavier than most of her previous releases.  For the most part, it works well- if it wasn’t for the length, obsessive interludes, and some of the less entertaining tracks, the album would have gotten five stars.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track List
1. Twisted Elegance (intro)
2. Velvet Rope
3. You
4. Got ‘Til It’s Gone (feat. Joni Mitchell and Q-Tip)
5. Speaker Phone (interlude)
6. My Need
7. Fasten Your Seatbelts (interlude)
8. Go Deep
9. Free Xone
10. Memory (interlude)
11. Together Again
12. Online (interlude)
13. Empty
14. Full (interlude)
16. Every Time
17. Tonight’s The Night
18. I Get Lonely
19. Rope Burn
20. Anything
21. Sad (interlude)
22. Special
23. Can’t Be Stopped

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egXDszHEiCQ]
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