On October 7, 1997, Janet Jackson released what would go on to become the most prolific body of work in her catalogue: The Velvet Rope. Before delving into the many reasons why this album deserves the title of masterpiece, it is necessary to first set the scene:
Just over a decade prior, in 1986, Janet Jackson released what most think of to be her debut album, Control. Although it was actually her third, it was her first as an adult and, not to mention, was a personal, artistic and commercial breakthrough for her. As the title suggests, she was in control. Three years later, she dropped the socially conscious Rhythm Nation 1814 which perfectly encapsulated the time period of the turn of the decade in both sound and lyrical content. She followed that iconic, record-breaking album with the rebirth that was janet. – largely attributed as her sexual-awakening.
These three albums provided a progression and allowed Janet to blossom into the fearless artist she had become. The Velvet Rope was the culmination of this transformation; the full fruition of a a pioneering pop star turned groundbreaking visionary. The fact of the matter is, Janet Jackson is an icon and a legend, and The Velvet Rope, for all that it is, cemented her status as such. Here’s why:
1. The Sankofa
Janet chose the symbol of the Sankofa to represent The Velvet Rope because, to paraphrase, it means that you must learn from your past to move forward – and that is what the album is all about. In the interlude “Sad,” she says, “there’s nothing more depressing than having everything and still feeling sad; you must learn to water your spiritual garden.” This, more or less, is what she was doing with this album. Filtering through her past experiences, accepting her depression, and working through it. This symbol became a symbol of hope for fans with similar experiences to cling to. For this reason, you’ll find it tattooed on not only Janet’s wrist, but the wrist of many of her biggest fans.
2. The Impact.
The Velvet Rope was probably one of the most personal albums ever released by a pop star of Janet’s magnitude, at the time, rivaled by the liked of fellow 1997-release, Mariah Carey’s Butterfly. It has inspired countless pop stars since to delve deeper within, introspectively sharing the most personal details of their lives and experiences. Not only that, but sonically, the album’s groundbreaking sounds, samples and genre-mixing created a blueprint for other artists, from Destiny’s Child’s Beyoncé and Kelly Rowland, to P!nk and Britney Spears, to Rihanna and Katy Perry, to follow. Similarly, when looking at visuals and concert tours by any of these artists who cite Janet as an inspiration, her impact is quite blatant.
3. It is the Pinnacle.
Some may disagree, but for many reasons, The Velvet Rope is clearly Janet’s artistic peak. With the help of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet crafted a masterpiece. Whether its your favorite album is of course a matter of opinion, but there is no denying that the depth and poetic quality of its lyrics, the innovative nature of its unique sonic landscape, the sheer bravery of the topics she tackled, and just the way she brought it all together into a cohesive and beautifully produced piece of work make it hard to argue that, from a creative and artistic standpoint, The Velvet Rope is the pinnacle of Janet Jackson’s catalogue.
4. The Visuals
From the photoshoots, to the videos, to the tour, and just her public appearances during the era, The Velvet Rope is iconic for Janet’s daring visuals. Janet challenged her own norm and dressed and styled herself in ways that stood out and were uniquely The Velvet Rope. If you see any photo of her from 1997-1998, you will unquestionably know that it was from then and not another period of her career. The red hair color. Not only that, but the music videos are some of the best works in her career, inspiring future artists – as mentioned earlier.
5. The Theme
Introduced with the introductory interlude, “Twisted Elegance,” and the title track “Velvet Rope,” the theme is quite simple: “It’s my belief, that we all have the need to feel special; and it’s this need that can bring out the best in us, yet the worst in us. This need created the velvet rope.” A metaphor for that place deep inside where we protect our innermost thoughts and feelings, The Velvet Rope, as an album, is Janet letting us beyond the rope, into her sacred thoughts.
6. The Mirror
The album is as if Janet is holding up a mirror to herself and singing herself through self-conducted therapy. No better example of that is “You,” a song in which she is in fact singing to herself, taking accountability for wrongs she’s done to herself to cause her own pain. At first it seems as though she’s talking to someone else, since its in second person, but in the end the mirror point-of-view is revealed when she spells out the word “conscience” – backwards.
7. The Vibe
The album’s first single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” contains a Joni Mitchell sample and a Q-Tip feature. If this doesn’t represent how expertly Janet crossed and mixes genres on this album, then I don’t know what does. While often overlooked, as it was overshadowed by second single “Together Again,” the song is quintessential mood music and, overall, a much better representation of the set. Not to mention, the Q-Tip rap is iconic AF.
8. The Sensual Similes
On “My Need,” Janet takes us through a series of sensual similes to show just how much she needs whoever she’s singing to. Despite lines like “I just want you inside” and “I feel so tight,” “My Need” still manages to be the tamest of the album’s sensual songs.
9. The Bop
“Go Deep” is the album’s resident bop – the party anthem. Perhaps my favorite thing about the song is its music video. I always wanted to have a house party like the one Janet concocts in the “Go Deep” video – complete with the overflowing washing machine and being throw into a pool with kiddie toys.
10. The Free Xone
On “Free Xone,” Janet narrates a short but poignant story dealing with homosexuality and acceptance. She encourages us all to live in the “Free Xone,” in which there is one rule: no rules, and one love. Sonically, it echoes a dance club mix in its lack of structure, minimal amount of lyrics, and different sonic movements throughout.
11. The Anthem
“Together Again” is the unmistakable anthem track off of The Velvet Rope; it is, on the surface, an anthem of rejoice and love for those loved ones who have passed away. However, for Janet, it is an anthem for a friend she lost to AIDS, and she helped further the fight against the disease, donating a portion of the single’s worldwide proceeds to HIV/AIDS research.
12. The Embrace of Technology
Janet has always been a pioneering artist. On The Velvet Rope, she embraced the then-upcoming internet fad by recording the song “Empty,” which is about an online relationship. She explores the emotional aspects of this new form of interpersonal connection, all the while showing how it’s really not that much different from your traditional in person relationship, in the way that we grow to expect and anticipate those romantic interactions.
13. The Conversation Starter
Probably the album’s most heavy track, “What About” is a story of domestic abuse. It begins, like most relationships with or without domestic abuse, seemingly peaceful and romantic before erupting into a rage of pent up anger and no-holds-barred questioning, “what about…?” The song was and is a powerful statement, fighting the stigma of domestic abuse that undoubtedly helped to start some necessary conversations about it.
14. The Piano Ballad
When you think of Janet Jackson, you probably don’t think of piano ballads. With “Every Time,” Janet tackles yet another sweeping piano ballad in the vein of “Again,” though a little more subtle. It is a beautiful and vulnerable track, that showcases her honest emotions, fears, and underrated, yet gorgeous, vocals.
15. The Threesome?
What seemed like an innocent Rod Stewart cover turned into a perhaps an admission of Janet’s sexual openness with two simple lines. First, at the start of the song, Janet says, “this is just between me, and you, and you.” Then, later, Janet sings, “Cause I love you, girl…” decidedly not changing the pronoun, but then later on doing so and saying “boy,” which left listeners begging to know if the two “yous” at the start were speaking to a male and female threesome. Such an admission would make Janet one of the first pop stars to have such a blatantly queer song, adding to the list of reasons why she is such a gay icon.
16. The Lonely.
“I Get Lonely” is such classic Janet. She effortlessly glides over the jazzy beat to create one of R&B’s greatest songs – ever. What can honestly be said? Just listen to it. It is pure greatness. The song. The video. It is e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.
17. The S&M.
On “Rope Burn,” Janet takes the sensual up a notch to pure sexual. It’s “1 AM,” she declares, before launching into an S&M laden track about how she’ll use her velvet rope in a whole new way. Any song that starts with the phrase “my lips hurt” is bound to be amazing.
18. The Uninhibitedness.
I mean, when a song is called “Anything” – and it’s about sex – this much is clear: she let go of all her inhibitions on this track. It’s perfect baby making music that pushed the boundaries of what was okay for a woman to say in a song – without shoving it down your throat with some overwrought sex book. What Janet did and does has class to it.
19. The Inspirational Moment
The album comes full circle from its title track on “Special,” with Janet watering her spiritual garden and inspiring others to do the same. The message is simple but effective: “we’re all born with specialness inside of us.” Here, she is embracing that – and encourages the listener to do so too.
20. The Pride
On the album’s hidden track “Can’t Be Stopped,” Janet celebrates being Black, encouraging other African Americans to do the same. “You were born with blood of Kings and Queens and can’t be stopped.” Throughout the albums visuals, the African influence is clear — and on this track, she makes it clear that she is celebrating her heritage. Also: the Sankofa symbol is from the Adinkra tribe in West Africa.