Wipe Off The Dust: 'Rhythm Nation' Becomes Legal

Friday, September 17, 2010

When an album, especially an album that impacted and set some sort of trend, hits a certain age we tend to scrutinize it for it's "dated" sound. I tend to favor the "dated" feel, because it captures a certain time and a certain style of music that always tends to be duplicated later on down the line, yet still doesn't feel like it did when it was first derived. This is how I feel about Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814

21 years ago on this upcoming Sunday, Rhythm Nation was released (yeah, I missed the 20th anniversary last year...but you probably did too) and it's officially "legal", it's an adult, it has responsibilities. While I always laud the critical darling of 1997 The Velvet Rope as my all-time favorite Janet Jackson album, I have to technically say that I enjoy Rhythm Nation much more. There is just something about it. The mechanical thrust of production, the industrial clanks and grinds of the late 80's New Jack and Pop sound herald  by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the overall idea that Janet Jackson concocted of fashionable vigilantes of social justice. It just flows really well and plays like a greatest hits collection since I rarely skip anything on it. Today, Rhythm Nation is a shining reminder of a time when Janet Jackson was clearly on the jaunt from being differentiated from her older brother. You know him, no need to mention his name. Rhythm Nation picks up where 1986's Control left off transforming Janet from a pucker pout pop spout, and brings her into a more serious and icon reaching status. Yep, she's so heavy on this.

Concept albums aren't usually done as much nor promoted in the R&B market. We all know Janet wasn't the first (nor last), but aside from concept records becoming overblown vanity projects, this one doesn't suffer that fate. This was nothing new for Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as they had tested the waters of a doing a concept album a year prior with Cherrelle's Affair in 1988. So they were pros on making this yet another surefire New Jill affair. The formula was changed though as the production was tighten up, the New Jack sound became bolder, and Janet was once again eager to prove beyond her namesake.

Rhythm Nation begins as a so ruff, so tough suite where Janet settles into a mindset a la Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, something that Jackson's record label, A&M, didn't want her to achieve. They wanted something along the lines of what Control contained. They didn't get that.

Jackson attacks the social awareness right from jump with sharp commentary ("State of the World") and impeccable calls for better education ("The Knowledge") and a better environment for our children ("Livin' In A World They Didn't Make"). In someone else's hands it would've been gooey, preachy and made for doe-eyed infomercials, but this isn't the case. After speaking her mind, Jackson turns it back into getting romantic and taking it to the dance floor...she's a Jackson, it's sort of her duty.

Funk elements collide with hip-hop/R&B and mingle in with rock as numbers, as such tracks like "Black Cat" and "Miss You Much" became instant favorites due to their variance. Even the ballads here seem more brooding and seedier than prior as songs like the nighttime confessionals of, "Lonely" and "Someday Is Tonight" have haunt long after they are done. Woven into the album's flow is Janet's first ever usage of "interludes" or mini-introductions to songs featuring sound bytes and music intros. She would go on to make this a signature part of her all her later albums.  

The Singles + Music Videos

A whopping seven singles were released from the album, and all of them reached the Top 10, four of them #1 hits...a feat that is noteworthy, and sadly, one that Janet herself hasn't topped since.

It begins with "Miss You Much", and the infamous "chair dance"...

The title track quickly followed, strangely it didn't reach the #1 slot, but still the iconic dance video where Janet dons the signature military get-up, made up for that...

The carousel-esque chimes open up, third single, "Escapade" vibrantly and it's easily one of Janet's best pop cuts...

It is immensely fitting that Janet donned a zoot suit and jammed with the legendary Cab Calloway in the video for "Alright", as the 1930's homage swing number called for it...

"Come Back To Me", the fifth single, becomes the "Let's Wait Awhile"of RN, yet with more painstaking emotion than innocence...

Sixth single, "Black Cat" got the concert video treatment, and it's a straight up growler, and my personal favorite....

Can you believe this album was still going strong in 1991? Final single (and all-time favorite song), "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" gained more attention simply from the music video alone. Aside from the man candy duo of Djimon Hounsou and Antonio Sabato Jr., Janet famously bared all...well, at that time it was ~shocking~....and thus the "Janet. sexy time" movement commenced. 

Rhythm Nation really embodied what an album project is about, where singles are released in density, and the artist themselves take the time to tour and promote it. In addition to the number of singles and videos released, the album was made into a mini-movie, dubbed the "1814 Project". The long forgotten Dominic Sena directed mini-movie, shows Janet as a "mysterious helper" as she guides two boys who fall into substance abuse. Yeah, Janet was totally serious about this project, especially with the messages she wanted to convey and well, she pegged it. Nowadays these types of records with commentary backing can be deemed ostentatious (see Kanye West's 808's and Heartbreak) or bubble into a being a bother (see R. Kelly's Trapped In The Closet saga), but Rhythm Nation in all of its New Jack luster, Jam & Lewis guidance and ability to take you from the picket protest line to the bedroom, is proof that an album like this can be done, and done well.

Okay, enough of my yapping, find yourself a copy of Rhythm Nation, put it on the needle, spin the disc or find it on the iTunes, and celebrate it still sounding as great in its 21 years.


  1. Love Janet... love this album... thanks for such a great post on such a pivotal album (pivotal for me at least!).

  2. Very well written and executed. As a huge JJ head, you know that lol, I am glad you showed this love.-QH

  3. i love this record, she could do a stage show just of this record, it's commentary is still valid.. when i listen to it now i think of Katrina and Hati


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