Happy 30th Anniversary to Janet Jackson’s fourth studio album Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, originally released September 19, 1989.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
In 1982, Janet Jackson released her self-titled debut album, followed quickly by Dream Street in 1984. Both efforts failed to create the kind of seismic impact that usually accompanied releases by her brothers, perhaps to the surprise of no one.
Then in 1986, deciding to take the reins of her life, her career and its trajectory, Jackson released Control, an album that went on to be a worldwide smash, to the surprise of everyone, but perhaps not its creator. With over 10 million copies sold and five Top 5 hits, Jackson stepped out of the long showbiz shadow cast by her brothers and claimed her place in the spotlight.
As massive of a hit as Control was, the pressure was on Jackson to release a follow-up that would chart just as well, if not better. But as she had done with Control, she decided to make the album she wanted rather than a carbon copy of what had worked before.
Where Control was an album about a woman staking her independence and coming into her own, the follow-up would cast its gaze wider to the world around her. Heavily influenced by Marvin Gaye’s landmark What’s Going On (1971) album, Jackson wondered if a modern take holding a mirror up to the social issues of the time could be achieved.
And so, with producers and confident confidants Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis by her side, the trio bunkered down during the winter of 1989 at Flyte Tyme studios in Minneapolis to make an album that could inspire a generation to become more socially conscious of the world they live in and the part they can play.
Fueled by the notion of creating a collective not bound by space, race, gender or sexual orientation, Jackson formed the Rhythm Nation, adding the numerals 1814 to reflect the year the Star Spangled Banner was written (and purely coincidentally, R and N are the 18th and 14th letters in the alphabet, respectively.)
Seeing the project as more than just a collection of songs, Jackson wanted the album to be a movement, an experience, a concept album with dramatic themes and segues that would appear throughout its running time.
And so the album opens with tolling bell and moody atmospherics whilst this newly formed nation’s “Pledge” is recited. Jackson lays out her intent for this new society stating, “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."
If the pledge was the equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance, then “Rhythm Nation” was the National Anthem.
Pumping out of the speakers, “Rhythm Nation” is a tour de force of metallic tribal beats, drum loops and samples featuring Sly and The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and Jackson’s own hits from the Control album. A frenetic industrial groove underpins Jackson’s vocals as she implores, “Join voices in protest to social injustice / A generation full of courage, come forth with me.” The song deftly marches the fine line of being rousing without being preachy, capturing the ideology and purpose behind Jackson’s message all wrapped up in a hard to sit still groove.
From “Rhythm Nation,” we segue into “State of The World” via a channel surfing interlude that mimics Jackson’s own experience of watching news stories on CNN and being moved into action. “State of The World” pulls no punches as it addresses the scourge of drugs, homelessness, prostitution, school shootings, poverty, teen suicide and teen pregnancy. Rather than trying to solve the problems in a four-minute pop song, Jackson decides to bring awareness to these issues and hopes to encourage her listeners to think about what they can do to drive change. Amidst the clanging metallic beats and wandering synth bass, the dire situation is given a voice and perhaps some hope as Jackson sings “Can’t give up hope now / Let’s weather the storm together.”
If “State of The World” presented real world problems, the following track, the beat heavy “The Knowledge,” offers a way out. Extolling the virtues of the United Negro College Fund’s motto “A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste,” Janet advocates for her listeners to pursue the power and opportunity that education brings and the doors it can open. One of Jackson’s most powerful songs, it (along with many of the songs from Rhythm Nation) remains incredibly vital and modern in both its outlook and sonic representation.
The album’s opening trio of songs clearly establishes the project’s intent and mission. Having challenged and opened minds, Jackson was now ready to give the listener a little reprieve from the social messaging with the dance-pop fare of “Miss You Much.” As she states in the interlude “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” she’s stated her point and is now ready to celebrate some of the more positive moments in life, namely love.
As the first single from the outing, “Miss You Much” was the bridge between the dance orientation of Control and the new direction of RN1814 the record label, and maybe even fans, pined for. Its instantly catchy groove and playful vocal delivery primed, this dancefloor filler bubbles with pop-funk and sweeps the listener away with its airy vocal melodies and ode to new love.
The slinky bassline of “Love Will Never Do Without You” seduces with ease as Jackson sings about the desire for a fulfilling love, even one against the odds. With a shimmering arrangement beneath her, Jackson delivers one of her finest moments on record. Often characterized as having a whispering vocal, here Jackson sings with strength and confidence and layers the song in lush backing harmonies that glisten with every passing line.
But as reality is oft want to do, these moments of relief are cracked by the harsh brutality of life. Inspired by the Stockton Playground Shooting that took place during the recording sessions, “Living In A World (They Didn’t Make)” is a somber reflection on the ills adults create for the next generation. Again, Jackson isn’t trying to claim she knows all the answers, but rather presents an issue for the listener to ponder.
Closing the midpoint of the album with “Living In A World,” Jackson frees up the second half of the project to explore a brighter side of existence kicking off with the jubilant, springing “Alright” with its New Jack Swing groove and acid house inspired loops and squeaky bass. If the first side of the album is characterized by the dominant black and white moody photography of the album cover, then “Alright” is an explosion of Technicolor bursting at the seams.
“Escapade,” with its pure pop sensibility, is smile inducing. Jackson’s playful personality is perfectly captured on record and underpinned by an irresistible chorus and double clap accompaniment. Its light and airy feel is the perfect counterpoint to the heaviness of the album openers.
As the only wholly self-penned track on the album, “Black Cat” exposes Jackson’s rockier side and gives us a glimpse into the challenging relationships of her past. Set against a classic rock beat and raucous guitars, she growls in her vocals, offering a raspier, rawer delivery that resonated with both rock and pop audiences, giving Jackson one of her four Number 1 singles from the album.
Just as the album opened with a trio of songs focusing on social consciousness, the album closes with another trio of songs, this time focused on relationships, love and sexuality. “Lonely” leads the pack with a slow-jam of densely stacked harmonies and swaying melodies. “Come Back To Me” is a pleading ballad of lament and longing, and “Someday Is Tonight” is the sexual climax of Control’s “Let’s Wait A While,” where Jackson delivers on the promise of being “worth the wait.” Sensual and breathy, Jackson seduces and pulls you in, setting the tone for her more sexual slow burn songs that would close out many of her albums that would follow this.
Rhythm Nation 1814 is perhaps the most perfect encapsulation of Janet Jackson. In many ways it became the blueprint for her albums that would follow both in structure and sequencing. And despite the fears of her record label, it was an unqualified smash success, surpassing the sales of its predecessor and cementing Jackson’s place within the superstar sphere.
Accompanied by a powerful and engaging 30-minute mini-movie, Rhythm Nation 1814 found Jackson wearing her heart on her black military inspired sleeve and dared to make a difference. In what would soon be iconic black and white imagery and oft repeated dance moves, Jackson created a look, feel, and sound of a whole generation to feel a part of.
But more important than the millions of sales and countless Top Ten hits, the album made an impact in people’s lives. It opened eyes. It gave voice to the issues of the day. It encouraged its listeners to make a difference in the world and their own lives. It made them care.
And it made a difference. If music has the power to connect us to an emotion or feel a part of something bigger, then Rhythm Nation did that. Kids hearing “The Knowledge” were inspired to stay on in school or seek a college education. People wary of differences became less fearful and embraced them. It inspired a generation to believe, to have hope, and feel that they could make a change. It engaged and connected with the listener. And it gave the listener a feeling of belonging, a place to feel good, to feel empowered.
Thirty years on and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is still a landmark album. It still resonates. And sadly it still reflects many of the ills that plague us. It’s both a time capsule and a mirror. A movement for the heart and mind. It’s a near flawless album. One that pulled Jackson once and for all out of the shadows of her elder siblings and made her a bona fide superstar who can still sell out arenas to this day. It’s an important milestone not only in Jackson’s career, but in the musical landscape in general. And when talk centers around great albums with a social conscience, it deserves to be included.