Editor’s Note: Our recurring “Portrait of the Artist” playlist series pays homage to the artists responsible for the most inspired and indispensable discographies of all time. We hope you enjoy these tributes, and stay tuned for many more to come.
On December 18th, 1982, a then 16-year-old Janet Jackson bounded onto the Soul Train stage to perform her first pair of American R&B and dance hits―“Young Love” and “Say You Do.” The singles had been released from her eponymous debut LP for the A&M label which had dropped just three months earlier. The songs were likable and spunky, much like the record they hailed from. And while many didn't know it yet, that performance exhibited the spirit of an icon waiting to take flight.
Thirty-five years later, with eleven studio albums that have shifted over a 100 million copies worldwide and countless hit singles, Jackson is the most singularly influential woman of color in popular music since Diana Ross. But somewhere along the way, Jackson's legend became mired solely in the numbers game regarding critical conversation.
Any analysis of the awesome content contained on those aforementioned albums was often restricted to one epoch in her career, misrepresenting the extent of her capabilities. When Jackson is talked about critically, it's with labels such as “entertainer,” “dancer,” or “performer.” This isn't to say that she isn't these things or that she doesn't excel in these fields, but that's not what makes those records excel. It's Jackson herself, the singer and songwriter, that makes the albums spark.
That impeccable and adept timbre, gorgeously feminine, but attitudinal, is what made her third album Control (1986) a seminal record of self-discovery and independence that was the soundtrack for an entire generation of black girls. Jackson's wordplay let her own multifarious sexuality find its voice. She used this subject as a thematic compass on her long players from 1993 onward for further self-governance and expression.
She paired her lyrics against an intelligent veld of rhythm and blues and black pop. If the song was romantic, the track could be jazzy and sensuous (“That's the Way Love Goes”). If the song were seductive or aggressive, the track could be funky, downright danceable or bedrocked in hip-hop (“So Excited”). This is to say nothing of Jackson's commitment to the album structure itself, despite any missteps, which confirmed that her eye (and ear) has always been on the music. Jackson just happens to be a singer-songwriter who dances and entertains.
To mark Jackson's 51st birthday today and to assist in the reclamation of her status as a musical icon, I've curated a playlist that mixes her chart staples alongside lesser known album fare. It is my sincerest hope that you'll come to understand that Janet Jackson's enduring appeal is more than any piece of choreography in a live show or music video, but what one hears when they listen to her music.
Note: While "Runaway" and "Twenty Foreplay" were originally slated to appear in this playlist, neither song is currently available via Spotify.