Happy 10th Anniversary to Janet Jackson’s tenth studio album Discipline, originally released February 26, 2008.
There was a sense that Janet Jackson had peaked creatively when she released her seventh album, All For You (2001). Of course, All For You hit its commercial marks, but an artistic stillness had taken hold of the vocalist-songwriter, until Damita Jo (2004). Looking back now, Damita Jo was an artistic reawakening, a reclamation of her forward-thinking R&B sound.
However, Damita Jo, and Jackson's career (for a time), were felled by the fallout from the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show. It is true that every artist experiences a period when they're not seen as “fashionable” to the larger public. But the difficulties that Jackson went on to face in her third decade suggested a more vitriolic aggressiveness toward her as a woman of color that extended well past “changing tastes.”
Jackson went on, unmoved and poised, continuing to release new music. 20 Y.O. (2006), not surprisingly, met indifference. The veteran effort solidified Jackson's rapport with the R&B and black dance genres, each prominent factors in her sound since the outset of her recording journey. Additionally, 20 Y.O. quietly concluded Jackson's tenure with Virgin Records and left her free to ink a new deal with the Island/Def Jam label. The product of this union, Jackson's tenth studio LP Discipline, sought to “course correct” the general audience perception that the singer had been “away.” Saddled with the Super Bowl drama, the two post-All For You albums had not been afforded the chance to be judged properly on their own merits, so a “reintroduction” was in order.
Discipline ended up as a first for Jackson as it related to removing herself and her chief collaborators, James Harris III and Terry Lewis, from the songwriting and production processes. Still, Jackson was actively involved in choosing the material she recorded and who would write and produce it. Many of the songwriters and producers commissioned for Discipline—notably Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, Dernst Emile, Terius “The-Dream” Nash, and Jermaine Dupri—had been influenced by the Flyte Tyme blueprint in some way or another.
Furthermore, all rallied were aware of Jackson's established musical persona. Barring two ill-fitting numbers (“Greatest X,” “The 1”), Discipline did not depart from Jackson's whipsmart rhythm and blues. Most noticeable is the shrewdness in the construction of the hooks for the songs, all of which were razor-sharp. Undoubtedly, this was done to entice radio programmers who only heard “hits with hooks” and bore both a reticence and an animus toward “legacy act” artists. Jackson was only 41 at the time of Discipline's emergence.
After starting with a traditional Janet Jackson album introduction, Discipline pulls back its curtain to showcase “Feedback.” The synthetic soul banger recalls the Rick James' “Punk Funk” vibe with a contemporary kick, its scuzzy synth line giving old school swagger on the chorus. An attentive ear will also detect a certain Jacksonian vocal tic, not used since Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989), present on this same chorus.
From “Feedback” onward, the LP moves from one modernist electro-funk invention (“Luv”) to another (“Rollercoaster), but space is made to return to past musical forays explored on previous albums. Specifically, the Euro-dance and R&B amalgamations heard on Damita Jo (“All Nite (Don't Stop),” “SloLove”) live on in Discipline with the brisk “Rock with U.” Borrowing a sensual, laconic page from the Donna Summer “I Feel Love” playbook, Jackson keeps the lyrics light and lets her airy tone accentuate the variegated effects of the track.
Returning to long running musical strengths and interests for Jackson, “So Much Betta,” an epic recast of Daft Punk's “Daftendirekt” into a Camille-era tribute to Prince, keeps Jackson's Minneapolis roots firm. And again, with exception to “Greatest X,” the ballads here—“Can't B Good,” “Never Letchu Go,” and the title track—are consistently fantastic. Nostalgic, wistful and erotic, each song's mood is carried convincingly by Jackson's voice, her tone and texture unmistakable.
Clocking in at 22 tracks, 23 with the international bonus cut (and “So Much Betta” companion piece) “Let Me Know,” Discipline was another effective R&B offering from Jackson. The question was did listeners want a new record from her in an epoch where they had been conditioned to be resistant and cynical to her creative charms?
Discipline would unfortunately not mitigate Jackson's commercial and critical problems. These woes were largely owed to the fact that Jackson had simply aged out of the mainstream consciousness, a transition hastened in the wake of the Super Bowl crisis from four years earlier. Interestingly, Discipline was arguably Jackson's greatest singles vehicle to date. The collection spun off four singles—“Feedback,” “Rock with U,” “Luv,” and “Can't B Good”—and each serviced every facet of Jackson's base: dance, crossover pop, mainstream and adult R&B. It was confirmation that the quality of Jackson's output had not diminished.
Unbreakable (2015) would break Jackson's self-imposed seven year silence, from a studio effort standpoint. Rave reviews followed and this more receptive atmosphere led to the beginnings of a “critical revival” for the three records Jackson had released from 2004 to 2008. Though Discipline's usually remembered for Jackson briefly stepping away from her principle songwriting/production duties, a closer inspection finds that she retained her characteristic level of creative “control” in guiding those assembled to realize her vision of that classic Janet Jackson sound with a modern twist.