Happy 15th Anniversary to Janet Jackson’s eighth studio album Damita Jo, originally released March 30, 2004.
Broadcast live from Houston, Texas on February 1, 2004, Janet Jackson’s halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVIII promised to deliver excellence in the tradition of her forbearers Diana Ross and brother Michael Jackson. As the headline attraction, Jackson gave nothing short of her usual best, but it was the closing segment of her performance that sadly eclipsed everything else. Graciously, Jackson had decided to share her spotlight with then-current pop music arriviste Justin Timberlake. What was supposed to be a flirtatious conclusory gesture tied to a lyrical reference in Timberlake’s charter “Rock Your Body” ended up becoming a flashpoint for a far-reaching controversy—and conversation—about race and gender that has endured for fifteen years.
Swept away in the tide of false outrage at the time was Jackson’s eighth studio LP, Damita Jo. The development of this project—that borrowed its namesake from Jackson’s middle name—began in the fall of 2002. At once, the Damita Jo sessions evinced a revitalized spirit of spontaneity with new collaborators courted and additional aural avenues considered as the writing and recording for the long player picked up in 2003. However, one thing became clear to all involved, Jackson would not be relinquishing the contemporary R&B format that she and her loyal co-creators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had made for themselves back in 1986.
For this fifth post-Control concept album, Jackson dipped into her own psyche to capture Damita Jo’s thematic charge from a myriad of internal identities dwelling there. Wisely, as the central songwriter, Jackson keeps this concept loose by allowing some of these character sketches to announce themselves by name (“Damita Jo,” “Strawberry Bounce”) while others with no appellative nature exist solely within the songs (“Warmth,” “Moist”). This makes for an album dynamic that (successfully) asks the listener to venture into its songwriting center beyond its opulent grooves and beats where there’s much to discover.
Further lyrical scores such as “Sexhibition” and “Like You Don’t Love Me” explore the playful politics of sex and monogamy with an unrepentant feminist underpinning. Ravishing slow jams such as “I Want You,” “Truly” and “I’m Here” espouse the pronounced romantic rhythm of Jackson’s mindset as owed to her relationship with super-producer Jermaine Dupri at the time.
All of Damita Jo’s song scripts are couched in equally fine music which pumps at a firmly funkier pace than what was expressed on her preceding album, All for You (2001). This wider, modish R&B framework keeps the hip-hop soul, world music, nu-disco and new wave vibes sported on entries like “My Baby,” “Island Life,” “SloLove” and “Just a Little While” in line with Jackson’s colorful urban tempo without undercutting the individuality of these genres. This is particularly true for the Dirty Mind (1980)-era Prince homage of “Just a Little While.”
Then there is Jackson’s quick-witted grasp of samples on Damita Jo. Boasting a diminutively effective pack of sources, the most notable samples include Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A…,” Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “I’m in Love,” and B.T. Express’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Each of these classics are respectively sewn into “Strawberry Bounce,” “All Nite (Don’t Stop),” “R&B Junkie” and “I Want You,” respectively. By wiring these existent compositions into her own productions, Jackson creates something old, something new and something thrilling, specifically on “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” and “R&B Junkie.”
While Jam and Lewis stayed at Jackson’s side in the construction of these tracks, she also made a demonstrative gesture to open the door to a larger collaborative support cast than ever before. The Avila Brothers, Dallas Austin, Anders Bagge, Arnthor Birgisson, Cathy Dennis, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds II, Sean Garrett, Scott Storch and a pre-MAGA stooge Kanye West are just some of the gifted writers, musicians and producers to join Jackson on what was shaping up to be her most ambitious effort so far.
Jackson’s often underestimated mezzo-soprano imbues the words and music of Damita Jo with soul throughout the affair. Whether confessional and cool on “Looking for Love” or engaging in a bit of jazzy sophistication on “Spending Time with You,” Jackson is “every inch a woman” as she declares confidently on “Put Your Hands On.”
In the weeks after her Super Bowl appearance, Jackson shut out the rising public clamor and promptly returned to the studio to put the finishing touches on Damita Jo. The album’s creation cycle stretched a lengthy, if productive 18 months; in the end, it was time well spent. The LP in its final form rounded out at a robust listing of 22 songs—24 on the Japanese pressing—capable of collective and individual brilliance.
Released on March 30, 2004, early reviews for Damita Jo were fairly positive, but they weren’t enough to shield Jackson from the Super Bowl blowback. Damita Jo was the first casualty of this onslaught as broader pop spaces shunned it, hobbling its commercial legs in its first few months of chart life. Thankfully, urban and dance outlets offered up support for the record and the three singles it spun off: “Just a Little While,” “I Want You,” and “All Nite (Don’t Stop).”
But far worse than any commercial consequence was the real-time critical revisionism levied against Jackson. Rather than be rightfully venerated for her investigation of erotic mores that could be traced back to Control, suddenly, it had all gone wrong. She watched helplessly as Damita Jo was grossly mischaracterized as damning evidence that she was some sort of oversexed deviant that desired nothing more than to shock and scandalize. This perverse caricature—flagrantly entrenched in racism and sexism—was virulently circulated by the mainstream press for years.
As it stands today, Jackson has weathered the contentious storm from the last decade and a half and come out stronger than ever. Not surprisingly, Damita Jo is finally beginning to receive its due. Echoing the experimentation of The Velvet Rope (1997)—albeit in an amorously fluid tone—more than any of her other records before or since, Damita Jo represents Janet Jackson at her most comfortable (and powerful) in her own sonic skin.