Popdose Flashback: “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '89

If it’s Monday, that must mean it’s time to go back to 1989 — and for this week’s Popdose Flashback, Mike Heyliger looks at Janet Jackson’s multimegaplatinum opus Rhythm Nation 1814.

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rhythmnation18141Janet Jackson may have declared her independence from her famous family with 1986’s Control, but the youngest of the nine Jackson children made it known that she would be more than a one-album wonder three years later with Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Guided by the production team of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for the second time, Jackson made one of the decade’s most forward-thinking R&B albums, fusing pop and soul melodies with a hard-edged, hip-hop derived sound. As audacious as Control was (and I can’t think of that kind of album made by a female R&B singer before it), Rhythm Nation is (and probably will always remain) her career’s crowning achievement.

With Rhythm Nation, Janet decided to look at the world around her and make an album that was themed around having a social conscience. Of course, political music was nothing new in R&B music. Back in the Seventies, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder, among others, spent as much time singing about political and social issues as they did singing about love and relationships. However, by the late Eighties, R&B had almost completely moved to the bedroom, while hip-hop had taken over as the genre to check out if you wanted to know what was going on in the world (to say nothing of rock acts like U2, Midnight Oil and Tracy Chapman).

Jackson got the idea for the album after learning about “nations,” groups of young people of various backgrounds who banded together to form sort of an intelligent alternative to street gangs. She decided to create a “nation” of her own, one that would center around music and dance as a means to discuss modern ills like racism, illiteracy and homelessness. Heady topics, to be sure, and granted, you’re not going to get much in the way of profundity here; after all, this is a Jackson we’re talking about . However, Jackson’s utopian, colorblind worldview resonated with her young, multi-ethnic group of fans, and with grooves as slammin’ as the ones Jam & Lewis cooked up, who cares about the words anyway?

Most of Rhythm Nation’s “message” songs contained a harder edge than anything Jackson or Jam and Lewis had cooked up before. The album’s title track uses a snatch of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)” as the background music for Janet’s statement of purpose. Songs like “State of the World” and “The Knowledge” keep that vibe going, with the muscular, almost-industrial sounding music creating tension against Janet’s soft, thin vocals. The only one of the issues-oriented songs to fall flat is the ballad “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make),” which goes for a Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On” vibe but ends up sounding like one of brother Michael’s maudlin “Heal the World”-style ballads.

Beyond the conscious material, Rhythm Nation is simply a top-shelf pop/R&B album. The freedom that came from scoring a hit with Control freed Janet and her producers up to create an album that fused classic melodies with cutting-edge music. Jackson created her very own “Beat It” with the rock-etched “Black Cat” (the only song written without the help of Jam & Lewis), while playing to her pop side with the effervescent “Escapade.” The James Brown-sampling “Alright” nodded to current hip-hop trends (this album contains more sampling than any mainstream R&B album had up until this point), while “Come Back to Me” and “Someday is Tonight” pointed the way to the more explicitly sensual music Janet would go on to do (and overdo) on future records.

It goes without saying that Rhythm Nation was a ginormous commercial success. Besides scoring her a second #1 album and officially establishing Janet as the “normal” one in the Jackson family (at least until the Super Bowl titty-flashing episode), it sold like hotcakes, and set a record by scoring seven Top 5 singles, including four #1s. More importantly, Rhythm Nation was one of the first mainstream pop albums to take many of its’ cues from hip-hop, which was then just fighting its’ way into the mainstream. By doing so, Janet helped create a sound that defined pop radio through much of the following decade and still does today.

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