Happy 20th Anniversary to Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope, originally released October 7, 1997.
Janet Jackson’s sixth studio album, 1997’s The Velvet Rope, surfaced nearly four-and-a-half years after its precursor, 1993’s janet.. The latter based its reputation around casting off any restrictions related to Jackson expressing her sexual appetites, curiosities and thoughts. Consider, for a moment, its iconic cover, as photographed by Patrick Demarchelier. Jackson’s first name is set in a general font, lowercase, with her last name absent, an epigrammatic period on the tail of the “t.” She is topless. Her hair cascades, some of it into her face, partially obscuring her vision without breaking her sensuous stare. The colors― beige, sepia, amber―are warm and inviting.
Juxtapose Demarchelier's shot with Ellen von Unwerth’s image used for the cover of The Velvet Rope. Garbed in a fitted black top, her head, tilted downward, is covered in a riot of frenzied, burnt orange curls that bounce off the violent red tone of the wall behind her.
Like their respective art directions, the music of each record could not be further apart. The analogy of “the velvet rope,” as both a casual and immediate separator of one thing from another was an accurate summation for Jackson’s own intimate, but guarded approach. She sought to use The Velvet Rope to further disrobe her pathos, confronting, through the music, what she found within.
Conceived over a two-year period, The Velvet Rope’s creation was undertaken by Jackson and her longstanding musical architects, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Jackson’s second husband, Rene Elizondo Jr., co-wrote alongside his wife on the project. Their marriage wouldn’t become public until their separation in 2000, but Elizondo Jr. was clearly an inspiration for Jackson.
After years of avoiding her far ranging internal struggles―depression, an eating disorder, body dysmorphia―Jackson sought to expunge these demons lyrically on The Velvet Rope. “You” is the most scathing of Jackson’s self-examinations. On the opposite side, “Special” is a nod to her own self-care. In tandem with her intrinsic ruminations, she takes on the global human condition too. Scattered throughout the LP are songs touching on LGBTQ issues (“Free Xone”), domestic abuse (“What About”), mortality (“Together Again”) and other socially conscious subjects. Unlike the topical tracks of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) or janet., The Velvet Rope’s social justice arc doesn’t feel strong-armed, only pragmatic and relaxed.
More intriguing was Jackson’s sexuality, a major component of the record’s narrative. Lyrically, she traverses the shadowy side of desire on “My Need” and “I Get Lonely.” From this album onward, eroticism became the thematic catalyst Jackson worked off of until the mostly conservative leaning Unbreakable (2015).
Musically, the lighter soul of janet. that unnecessarily tended toward pop accessibility is exchanged for a bolder, blacker sonic on The Velvet Rope, which favors a deeper mining of hip-hop (“Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” “Go Deep”), house (“Together Again”) and a miscellany of other modish urban designs, some sampled, some original.
Importantly, there was a new ingredient at play here: neo-soul. This R&B sub-genre was to bring artistic relief to a black music scene soon to become rife with super producers and manufactured talent as the 1980s closed. Starting in 1991 with Omar, the sub-genre grew each subsequent year with efforts from Caron Wheeler, Meshell Ndegeocello, D’Angelo and Maxwell. This movement influenced the imaginations of black artists far and wide. Jackson is no exception, as neo-soul carried the Blaxploitation/freestyle merger of “Free Xone” and the bare-faced piano preciousness of “Every Time.” Neo-soul also touched Jackson’s visual aesthetic for The Velvet Rope. Two of its partnering music videos directed by Mark Romanek (“Got ‘Til It’s Gone”) and Seb Janiak (“Together Again”) were celluloid encomiums to Afrocentrism.
But while The Velvet Rope brought Jackson back to her rhythm and blues homebase, the LP did not engage in total R&B isolationism. She tied in bits and pieces of alternative rock and electronic influences too, as heard on the squally title track and “Empty.”
Quite the musical meal when served up on October 7, 1997, The Velvet Rope asked for patience while unmasking its treasures. The set’s singles―“Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (featuring Q-Tip), “Together Again,” “I Get Lonely,” “Go Deep,” “You,” and “Every Time”―were fantastic lures for what awaited listeners on The Velvet Rope en masse.
Jackson’s sixth LP marked a new pinnacle for her, both critically and creatively. Since then, only Damita Jo (2004) has been able to enter The Velvet Rope’s orbit as her secondary masterpiece. By granting temporary access to the “spiritual garden” of Janet Jackson on The Velvet Rope, audiences can experience and celebrate the complexities of this woman, great and small.