Gregory Robinson sizes up Janet Jackson’s seminal 6th studio album.
When pop icon Janet Jackson released her sixth studio album in October 1997, it marked a huge step for her creatively, commercially and personally. The Velvet Rope – which many fans and critics believe to be Janet’s magnum opus – ushered a new era for the pop star. A refreshed image consisting of vibrant frizzy red hair, multiple body piercings and tattoos were only the start to Janet’s physical transformation. Janet had also undergone a mental transformation.
From her youth, starring on the musical drama Fame in the 80s, leading all the way up to her Janet World tour in 1994, Janet had experienced ranges of depression, body dysmorphia, anorexia, self-hatred, physical abuse and had also had a mental breakdown. Like many artists, Janet infused her pain into her music, and ultimately released her first album under her new Virgin contract which carried an $80 million dollar price tag, making her the highest paid musician for the second time. Those expecting The Velvet Rope to be a manufactured collection of pop drivel would have been surprised to learn that The Velvet Rope is Janet’s most personal, vulnerable, empowering and provocative album to date.
The Velvet Rope is an excellent example of an introspective record which presents a troubled artist’s search for strength and empowerment by acknowledging and ultimately accepting their imperfections, flaws and insecurities and using them to uplift themselves and the millions of fans who follow them. The title is as a metaphor to represent an emotional barricade which prevents individuals from revealing their innermost thoughts in comparison to the velvet rope used at award shows which prohibits spectators from access. The album’s magnificent artwork was photographed by Ellen Von Unwerth and depicts Janet lowering her head in front of a crimson red backdrop, symbolising introspection and self-reflection, which are the overarching themes of the album.
Empowerment, sexuality, depression and domestic violence are prevalent among The Velvet Rope’s sonically progressive tracks. Similarly to Janet’s previous albums, The Velvet Rope explores a multitude of different genres including; R&B, pop, trip hop, folk, jazz, electronic, crunk, hip hop, soul, house, disco, rock and soul.
The album’s lead single was the first sign of Janet’s departure from mainstream pop music. ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’, featuring rapper Q-Tip and folk singer Joni Mitchell, is a downtempo, alternative hip hop song about appreciating what you have when you have it. The sublime production, with old-school DJ scratching layered underneath Janet’s vulnerable vocals shows a less polished and raw side of Jackson.
‘Together Again’ became one of the bestselling singles of all time and was written as a response to a young fan’s letter written to Jackson as well as her own experience losing a friend from AIDS. Despite the mournful lyrical theme, ‘Together Again’ is a thumping house track with uplifting dance beats and a delightful intro which utilises the harp creating ultimate pop bliss.
Old-school Janet is certainly not forgotten on The Velvet Rope. ‘Go Deep’ is a sleek, slippery and sultry Funk slow jam about Janet’s desire to go to a club, get a man and take him home to make him ‘scream and moan’. The frenzied, drum and bass anti-homophobia track ‘Free Xone’ transcends tempos to preach social acceptance and equality.
The album takes a darker route on ‘What About’. Jackson sings about domestic violence and infidelity. The song starts off as a fairy-tale and details Jackson and her lover walking on the beach, promising a lifelong piety. This idyllic vision of romance is soon destroyed as the track plunges into a frenzy of electric guitar riffs as Janet questions, ‘What about the times you hit my face?../ What about the times you said you didn’t fuck her; she only gave you head?’
The Velvet Rope is one of the 21st Centuries most underrated albums and a testament to empowerment. It is the epitome of a ‘personal pop album’ and provides an intimate view of the struggles of dealing with mental and physical pain and the long road to accepting oneself both emotionally and physically.