The Velvet Rope
Virgin Records, 1997
REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/30/2009
“You have to learn to water your spiritual garden.” Maybe you should follow your own advice, Janet. So goes the sludgy and downbeat misstep that is The Velvet Rope. This R&B entry in Janet Jackson’s catalog is a clear example of an artist adrift, delivering mundane lyrics in a slow-motion, half-asleep style that does little to keep the listener awake throughout the ridiculously long seventy-five minute running time. Janet apes Madonna circa Erotica on “You,” with a monotone spoken delivery that is an obnoxious, failed attempt at going experimental. Then she has the audacity to rip off Joni Mitchell on the heavily sampled “Got Till It’s Gone,” which is a close cousin to the Fugees’ hip-hop remake of “Killing Me Softly.”
As hard as she tried to earn her R&B stripes, black listeners didn’t even know what to do with this Jackson family member in 1997. It didn’t get to #1 on the R&B chart and only by the skin of its teeth got to #1 on the pop chart. The only real memorable hit singles came in the form of woefully out-of-place cuts, “Together Again” and “Go Deep,” both of which went to #1 on the club play chart. The gay community appreciated her efforts in dedicating “Together Again” to all her friends who had died from AIDS, and were the one audience who dug this new aggressively sexual direction Janet seemed to be going in.
The risqué overtones of The Velvet Rope certainly set the tone for what would come in the next decade for this woman who was now famous enough to simply be known as Janet. After her brother’s indiscretions and public humiliation, Janet knew that the Jackson name wasn’t necessarily something you could easily promote anymore. What should have been a one-off suddenly became the groove that she felt the most comfortable in, even if it meant alienating her core pop fan base. For their part, Virgin didn’t seem as if they cared what Janet did, allowing her to repeat herself with the same formula for four more unnecessarily X-rated albums that contained few hits. Not even her longtime producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis felt as though a course correction was in order, even though from a commercial standpoint, it was sorely needed.
On the plus side, Janet does bust a mean funky move with the anything-goes “Free Xone,” while giving us some more quality ballads like “I Get Lonely.” Many of the tracks do blur together, however, so if she was intending on creating a masterpiece concept album, she falls depressingly short. Hitting us over the head with themes of S&M (“Rope Burn”), abuse (“What About”), and bisexuality (on the terrible rewrite of the Rod Stewart chestnut “Tonight’s The Night”) didn’t exactly endear herself to middle America, who were fully prepared in their response to her “accidental” nipple exposure during her 2004 Super Bowl career-killing halftime show performance. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if her stage partner-in-crime Justin Timberlake sang “Bye Bye Bye.”