By the mid-80s, it seemed an unlikely prospect at best that Janet, the youngest sibling of the superstar Jackson family, would break through the long shadow cast by her brothers. She had a couple TV appearances under her belt, and had released two albums that went absolutely nowhere: Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984). Her brother Michael was the biggest star in the world when Dream Street was released, but that connection wasn’t enough to get the album past a paltry peak of #147.
Then lightning struck, producing one of the great convergences in pop music history. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were ace musicians and producers who had been members of Prince’s protégé group The Time. Prince fired them in the middle of a tour after they were unable to make a show because of flight delays as they returned from a production session with the S.O.S. Band. One could say that being fired was the best thing that could have happened to them. They ended up meeting Janet Jackson, and the result was her third album and big breakthrough, Control (1986). Far bolder and more confident than her first two albums, Control was a declaration of independence and of the arrival of a mega-star.The album launched a string of highly commercial and successful R&B/Dance/Pop hybrid singles, mostly co-written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Control,” “Nasty,” “The Pleasure Principle” and her first #1 smash “When I Think of You,” which would turn out to be the first of an incredible ten #1 singles for Janet.
Following up Control was no doubt a daunting endeavor, but Jackson, Jam and Lewis had ambitious plans and ended up topping it by a mile with an edgy and kinetic collection of songs that not only grooved hard and but also had a positive message. Rhythm Nation 1814 was preceded in late August by first single “Miss You Much,” a sizzling dance/pop epic. It shot straight to #1 and lodged there for 5 long weeks, and the dance-heavy video was featured heavily on MTV. Anticipation for Janet’s new album was at a fever pitch, and when it arrived on September 19, 1989 it was an immediate commercial and critical triumph.
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 opens with her reciting the lines: “We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals sharing a common vision pushing toward a world rid of color-lines.” These sentiments set the theme for the album. It conveys a strong message of acceptance and togetherness, concepts that would recur throughout Janet’s career. It’s an album that is musically diverse while remaining cohesive. The songwriting is about as good as it gets for pop music, and the production is fresh, exciting and innovative. It sounds miles better than most pop music that was being churned out in the late ’80s.
Rhythm Nation 1814 was successful beyond all expectations. It spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard Album Chart, and spawned an unbelievable seven Top 10 hits, four of which hit #1. The follow-up to “Miss You Much” was the bold and edgy funk classic “Rhythm Nation,” a call to arms for solidarity by humanity in the face of the harsh realities of modern life. With a dense wall-of-sound production, “Rhythm Nation” is an aggressive and dynamic mix of funk, rock and hip-hop, and Janet’s voice is harsher and more intense than we’d heard from her at that point in her career. The end result is electrifying. The track peaked at #2 on the pop chart, but topped both the dance and R&B chart. Like most of the singles from Rhythm Nation 1814, it was also accompanied by a seemingly endless number of remixes. “Rhythm Nation” was also known for its outstanding video, which included breathtaking choreography with Janet and her dancers dressed in military-inspired outfits.
The most joyous song on Rhythm Nation 1814 is without question “Escapade,” a glossy and jubilant pop gem that became the album’s third single, and second #1 pop hit. It’s brimming with positive energy, and is a ray of light on an album that often deals with harsh social issues. It’s impossible not to smile when those opening keyboard lines of “Escapade” come on, and then that irrepressibly funky beat starts; “Escapade” still sounds great on big club speakers, and it still gets a crowd moving and singing along.
Next up was the hip-hop influenced “Alright,” which reached #4. For the single mix, Janet enlisted the help of Heavy D. who added a rap to the track. “Alright” was followed by the album’s sexy ballad, “Come Back to Me.” Featuring a beautifully layered vocal by Jackson and some lovely instrumentation by Jam and Lewis, it climbed all the way to #2. It’s another stunning ballad for Jam and Lewis, who already had classics like The Human League’s “Human,” Force MD’s “Tender Love,” and Janet’s own smash “Let’s Wait Awhile” from Control under their belts (perhaps their finest ballad would come on Janet’s next album, the glistening beauty “Again”).
Most albums, even when they are highly successful, don’t get five singles, let alone six or seven. But with Rhythm Nation 1814 still going strong and still sending tracks to the upper reaches of the chart, A&M Records issued a sixth single on August 28, 1990, just over a year since “Miss You Much” first hit stores. It proved to be another #1: the ferocious rocker “Black Cat.” Unlike all the other singles from the album, “Black Cat was produced by another former member of The Time, Jellybean Johnson, and features a heavy guitar part handled primarily by Dave Barry. A straightforward hard-rock track might seem a strange fit for Janet, but she delivers an aggressive vocal and has enough swagger and attitude to pull it off. Another classic single.
Over a full year after the album’s release, on November 5, 1990, the seventh and final single was released, the upbeat “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” ending the album’s run of singles with yet another #1. It features a striking video directed by famed photographer Herb Ritts that shows Janet in a more sexy, natural and personal setting than in many of the elaborate videos filmed for Rhythm Nation 1814. “Love Will Never Do (Without You”) was fitting finale to the remarkable year Janet Jackson had with her astonishing run of smash hits and acclaim. (Yet another track, “State of the World,” was released as a promo single and made the Top 10 on the dance chart.)
A quarter-century has now passed since Janet Jackson’s landmark Rhythm Nation 1814 was released, and it hasn’t lost any of its power or relevancy. As a collection of first-rate pop songs it’s hard to beat, as it’s seven major hit singles prove. It’s one of the most important albums of the late ‘80s, and a testament to the exceptional collaborative power of Janet Jackson with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Sometimes in music it’s just a matter of the right combination coming together, and in this case the results speak for themselves.
So let’s celebrate 25 years of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 by pulling it out, dusting it off, and giving it a nice loud play all the way through. It’s continued vitality and relevance is undisputed, but it could certainly benefit from a nice deluxe reissue – there are plenty of remixes that could fill a second disc, including the single mixes which are often significantly different than the album versions. There are also two non-album b-sides that are difficult to track down: “You Need Me” and “Skin Game.” Technology has improved in the 25 years since the Rhythm Nation 1814 CD first appeared, and it’s time to treat this classic album to the deluxe treatment that so many other key albums have received. But until that happens we still have the original to enjoy, and it’s as great a quarter-century later as it was in 1989.
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