Look at the cover of Janet Jackson's new album, "janet." (Virgin 87825, arriving in stores Tuesday), and what you'll see seems at first to be a simple statement of identification. There's a head shot of the singer, holding her hands atop her head and staring straight into the camera with the barest hint of a smile. Add in the title, and what the front of the album appears to say is, "This is Janet. Period."
Flip the jewel box over, though, and you get a different perspective on the star. What this side shows is her hips, snug in a well-worn pair of jeans, with a long key-chain slung to one side and the fly open just enough to exhibit the shapely musculature of her middle. It's an image ripped straight from the world of fashion, ripe with the suggestion of sex, style and body-consciousness.
Taken together, the album's front and back seem to sum up Jackson's focus in "janet.": Head and hips. Mind and body. Sense and sensuality.
On the one hand, she wants to address issues here, to have her say on important subjects. That's why the album, despite its apparent focus on love and lust, finds room for serious songs about sisterhood ("New Agenda") and African-American culture ("Funky Big Band"). But at the same time, she also wants "janet." to be a first-class dance album, with music so intensely rhythmic that it moves the body as surely as her ideas engage the intellect.
An admirable ambition, but one the album never quite realizes. Because despite what the cover concept suggests, Jackson leads with her hips, not with her head, so that the beat invariably overpowers any message in the music.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind. By keeping the emphasis on musical impact, "janet." avoids the sort of over-conceptualized silliness that left much of "Rhythm Nation 1814" drowning in platitudes. "janet." has some concept-album problems of its own -- the solipsistic scene-setters that turn up between songs, for instance, or that stupid period in the album title -- but these are just minor annoyances.
Dazzling, seductive sounds
Besides, the sounds she and her long-time producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, have assembled here are often so dazzling and seductive that it's hard to care whether the songs mean anything at all.
Some of that has to do with the way Jam and Lewis treat Jackson's vocals, tailoring the material to make the most of what is, frankly, a fairly limited instrument. Janet is hardly the strongest singer in the Jackson clan -- her tone is thin, and she lacks power in her upper register -- yet the arrangements here generally turn those weaknesses into strengths.
"That's the Way Love Goes," for instance, keeps Jackson at the lower end of her vocal register, coaxing a velvety warmth from her that perfectly complements the lyric, much as "Again" lets the whispery edge of her voice underscore the ballad's emotional intimacy. Things work differently on the up-tempo tunes, but the net effect is essentially the same. "If," for instance, hides her high-note weaknesses in a raft of breathy background vocals that float over a thumping techno beat, while "Funky Big Band" piles so much compression onto the backing tracks that Jackson's singing seems much stronger than the tinny, toy-like sounds behind her.
That balance doesn't always hold, however. "New Agenda," which boasts a guest rap by Chuck D of Public Enemy, seems a great idea on an ideological level, since the rapper's presence makes her message extolling African-American women seem all
the more street-credible (particularly when Chuck chimes in with lines like "it ain't nothin' but an us thing"). Musically, though, even with a wall of harmony behind her, Jackson has a tough time holding her own against the dense, beat-heavy rhythm tracks and Chuck D's booming interjections.
Nonetheless, there are times when the production is so overwhelming that what Jackson does barely seems to matter. "This Time" is perhaps the most egregious example, using soprano Kathleen Battle to inflate a "Black Cat"-style metal riff to almost operatic dimensions. It's a clever gimmick, and fits well at first with the lyric's you-blew-it-boy anger, but as the song builds and the music swells, Jackson ends up a bit player in her own production. But even that's better than "Throb," a heavy-breathing tribute to doing the nasty that's so reliant on sample-and-splice technology that Jackson barely does any singing at all on the track. (It does have her moaning quite a bit, though.)
Don't take this to mean Jam and Lewis' production is complete overkill -- it's not. Their deft layering of rhythm and harmony on "Because of Love" is enough to turn a so-so melody into a terrific track, while the way "You Want This" contrasts an industrial-strength drum break with the glockenspiel hook from the Supreme's "Love Child" is sheer genius.
But some restraint is in order, because "janet." is clearly at its best when the music is kept relatively uncluttered. That's why the most convincing tracks tend to be those that let the songs carry most of the weight, like the lithe, samba-flavored "The Body That Loves You," or "What'll I Do," Jackson's soulful rewrite of Johnny Daye's near-forgotten 1967 single, "What'll I Do for Satisfaction."