Nobody is going to call The Velvet Rope (Oct. 7) Janet Jackson’s trip-hop record. Mainly because it isn’t. Not exactly.
The 31-year-old Jackson, always the most malleable of the Jackson clan, and her long-time producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, have clearly spent the time between the release of 1993’s janet. and the singer’s new 22-track album’s release doing their homework.
The album, co-produced by Jackson, Jam and Lewis (former members of one-time Prince proteges The Time), is another long, sometimes strange trip into Jackson’s sensual world, complete with the kind of slow-burn ballads you’ve come to expect (“Every Time”), propulsive disco jams custom cut for the dance floor (“Together Again”), seven spoken-word interludes (“Interlude–Sad”), as well as a number of stylistic twists you might never associate with such a mainstream diva.
The first single, “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” sets the tone for the new, more experimental material. Borrowing a spooky vocal loop from folk-rock songwriter Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” interrupting that with old-school DJ scratching, mixing in a rap by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and layering it all with Jackson’s fragile, whispered vocals, the song is then, now and later all at the same time.
Surprises pop up from the start, with the title track, containing a sample of the Malcolm McClaren song “Hobo (Scratch)” and Mike Oldfield’s legendary Exorcist theme, “Tubular Bells.” The blunted riff is interrupted at the end with a breakdown into a creaky violin solo by Vanesa Mae. The anti-homophobia jam “Free Xone,” which samples James Brown’s “Think (About It)” and Archie Bell and the Dell’s “Tighten Up,” is a loose mix of funky guitar, scratching, sampling, honey rapping, break beats and electronic accents that seem to be a flip-book primer of everything Jam and Lewis learned from their former purple-clad boss.
The frantic tune “Empty” is propelled by a jittery, mellowed-out jungly beat, while the (emotional) bondage anthem “Rope Burn” might be the first R&B trip-hop ballad, retro-fitted with a lazy, jazzy beat and a spare, slap bass-heavy backing track. Several of the ballads, such as the smoothed-out cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” use computer-programmed beats so old-school and robotic, they almost seem modern, especially the bedroom g-funk beats of “Go Deep” and “Anything.”
The Velvet Rope is also the most nakedly honest and revelatory album of the singer’s career. The skeletal beats and flamenco guitars of “What About” spar with a guitar and bass rock chorus spiked with in-your-face lyrics such as “What about the times you hit my face/ What about the times you kept on when I said/ No more please.”
This isn’t the second coming of Garbage or the Sneaker Pimps; there are still plenty of the kind of middle-of-the-road R&B ballads and jams Jackson has built a 40-million album-selling career on. But it is an interesting step in a new direction. [Thurs., Oct. 2, 1997, 6:30 p.m. PDT]