CD Review of Discipline by Janet Jackson
Recommended if you like
Britney Spears, Rihanna, Beyoncé
Label
Island/Def Jam
Janet Jackson: Discipline

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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S
he was on a pretty good run for a while there, but since 1997’s The Velvet Rope, it’s been all downhill for Janet Jackson, both critically and commercially. The popular knock on Janet’s last few albums is that they’re far too overtly sexual – more on that in a minute – but really, records like Damita Jo and 20 Y.O. had all kinds of problems. Subject matter has been the least of Miss Jackson’s worries; she’s also had to contend with the same problem that’s crippled the careers of zeitgeist-riding pop singers from Gladys Knight on down through Whitney Houston, which is this: too many birthdays.

Pop music is a young person’s game, of course, but that isn’t really what’s punctured Janet’s balloon – it’s that she made her bones as a young woman singing songs for young people, and had her thumb so squarely on R&B’s cutting edge that she seemingly never stopped to consider what would happen when she got too old to convincingly carry lyrics like “What’s ur name babe / Put it right in my Sidekick / And I’ll hit u back / Soon as I get home.”

For a time, Janet seemed as though she might successfully bridge the gap between the teenybopper jams of Control and more adult fare; with Rhythm Nation 1814 and janet., she made a number of interesting and adventurous artistic choices. But from The Velvet Rope onward, she’s seemed determined to confuse “adult” with “R-rated,” and forget about interesting songs in the bargain. Still, in a record industry light on star power, every new Janet album is an event; every time she starts a new release cycle, people speculate that the new record will be the one that proves she’s still got it, no matter how long she remains stubbornly ensconced in her latex-lined rabbit hole.

Janet Jackson

Critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Margeaux Watson have run Discipline over the coals for its lyrical content – and been themselves accused of ageism – but the fascination with Janet’s love of dirty talk misses the point. It isn’t that a 42-year-old woman shouldn’t be cooing stuff like “Daddy I disobeyed u / Now I want u to come punish me,” it’s that those lyrics should be in service of something deeper than the giggly, club-hopping persona of a college junior. Madonna, for instance, has found a way to channel her sexual energy as a believably middle-aged pop star. Jackson, in stark contrast, seems afraid to acknowledge that her personal scope may have widened since the late ‘80s.

Having said all that, Discipline isn’t without its merits; in fact, in terms of sheer consistency, it might be her best album since janet. Take that with a grain of salt, though – it isn’t saying much, first of all, and secondly, its appeal has very little to do with Janet Jackson.

Jackson’s lighter-than-air vocals have always been sort of beside the point, but for the bulk of her career, she’s at least given the appearance of someone interested in shaping her own material – which is why it’s so disheartening to see that her only writing credit on the entire album is a co-write for “4 Words,” one of the seemingly innumerable spoken-word interludes that pollute the disc. The lion’s share of the material is co-written by Janet’s boyfriend/label boss, Jermaine Dupri, whose vaunted Midas touch helped spark Mariah Carey’s post-Glitter comeback. A similar effect is clearly being attempted here, which is probably why these songs are so anonymous-sounding. Cuts like “Feedback,” “Luv,” and “Rollercoaster” are solidly crafted dance tracks, but anyone could sing them; if Janet hadn’t been ready to drop a new album, Dupri surely could have sold them to Rihanna, or Amerie, or Cassie, or…you get the idea. For the first time since her pre-Control days, Jackson sounds like a cog in a machine that was assembled without her knowledge.

The saddest part of all this is that she’s reached the point where people expect so little from her albums that the critical focus has stopped probing any deeper than which dirty words she uses on which songs. She was always a dance artist, not a poet, so this isn’t a tragedy by any means – but it’s always disheartening to hear a performer abandon her artistic ambitions, no matter how limited they may have been, in pursuit of commercial relevancy. These songs may very well shake some asses in the clubs, but underneath it all, Janet Jackson sounds like she’s simply going through the motions.

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