“I want to have fun” Janet Jackson says on the introduction to 2006’s 20 Y.O. The album’s album cover reflects that sentiment. It’s the third consecutive Janet Jackson album to feature a beaming Jackson on the cover. These jovial covers contrast the quad of classics that all feature a more serious or obstructed face (Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, janet., and The Velvet Rope). Released 20 years after Jackson released her career-defining Control, 20 Y.O. marks the first significant break in her six consecutive collaborative efforts with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Though the duo receive production and songwriting credits on all but one song on the record, their creative influence largely takes a back seat to Jackson’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri. Dupri is credited (and blamed), with the album’s shifting direction and sound, and the lopsided sonic nature of the final product. 20 Y.O. serves as a strong period piece at the creative height of Janet’s time with Dupri, and contains a few of her best songs of the 2000’s. It’s sequencing and unclear creative direction disrupt the fun Janet sets out to have.
The first offering from 20 Y.O. was released on May 1, 2006, was and quickly rescinded and rebranded as a “gift.” The song, a spirited cover of Debbie Deb’s 1984 hit “Lookout Weekend” simply retitled “Weekend,” would have fit the album immaculately. It’s fun, upbeat, and harkens back to percussion and synths Jam and Lewis brought to the records the trio made twenty years prior. The first “official” taste of the album was a safer move; a warm midtempo collaboration with Nelly titled “Call On Me.” 2006 was a big summer for rap-sung collaborations, with Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Deja Vu,” Sean Paul and Keyshia Cole’s “(When You Gonna) Give It Up To Me,” and Ciara and Chamillionare’s “Get Up” all vying for the top spot on the charts.
“Call On Me” has the sweetness of Janet records prior, garnished by the freshness of Dupri’s trending sonic form (his work with Usher and Mariah Carey in 2004 and 2005 earned him major accolades). It lands halfway through the album, and bookends where Dupri’s contributions very noticeably drop off. The back-and-forth hook with Nelly is catchy, too. The second single, “So Excited” hits hard with heavy scratching and percussion as well as a steamy, double-take inducing music video. It opens the album and features the ever-controversial Khia, setting the tone for the five club-ready records that follow are, and fit well alongside the discarded “Weekend.”
“Do It 2 Me,” soars with a stellar, accelerated sample of Brenda Russell’s “If Only For One Night.” Produced along with No I.D., it sounds fresh, which is ironic since Dupri and No I.D. flipped Luther Vandross’ version of the same song the year before on Bow Wow and Omarion’s chart-topping “Let Me Hold You.” “This Body” has a rock edge and electric guitar-mimicking synths (along with some light electric guitar work) that picks up where 2001’s “Trust A Try” and 2004’s “Just A Little While” left off. It even features an uncredited Dupri laying down a vocally tweaked verse celebrating Janet’s Maxim magazine cover, like any good boyfriend would do.
Some cuts like “With U” are abashedly Dupri, which is unapologetically akin to two recent Dupri hits: Usher’s “Confessions Part II” and Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off.” If Janet did it first it would have been fresh, but by this point it’s a tired rehash. Not to mention it disrupts the flow of the dance theme the album carries up to this point. “Call On Me” follows, and Dupri clocks out for the rest of the album. This sequencing is where the album struggles. Dupri slows things down slightly and does an Irish exit, leaving Jackson, Jam, and Lewis to pick up the slack. They’re more than a qualified bunch, but you can’t expect this dynamic trio to imitate Dupri’s sound. They have their own sonic profile, and they play into it.
Their portion does start strong, with a one-two punch of two of Janet’s strongest songs of the 2000’s. “Daybreak” is vivacious. It brilliantly encapsulates the thrill of a late-night rendezvous, set to a sweet cornucopia of bells, synths, and a danceable beat. This sounds like the fun Janet yearned for on the album’s introduction.
“Enjoy” is the perfect follow up. It contrasts “Daybreak”’s anticipation and eagerness, and instead provides calm with it’s steady and driving beat, which launches after a robotic voice prompts “enjoy.” The song feels rejuvenating. It’s confectionary and sensual, with a relaxing air, heightened by Janet and the piano following each other with the melody for the majority of the song. If “Daybreak” was the build-up, “Enjoy” is the moment, elongated and savored. While they’re different from the dance-heavy songs with Dupri, with proper sequencing they could fit the album even better. Things quickly turn from there, and the album ends on a low note with two slow and at-times boring love songs that don’t belong.
“Take Care” is a standard ballad of the trio’s making and breaks no new musical ground. The closing cut is a sputtering “Love 2 Love,” which might work elsewhere but is simply too slow for this body of work. The sequencing of these two songs side-by-side triggers memories of the poorly sequenced ballad section in the middle of 2001’s All For You. It makes for an anticlimactic and unsatisfying end to what initially masquerades as an upbeat dance record.
There is some momentary redemption on the Japan version of the album, with the second and final Japan-exclusive track, “Days Go By.” It’s laid back but has enough of a beat that it fits right alongside “Daybreak” and “Enjoy.” After an album that moves, this sweet-sounding mid-tempo where Janet sings about being lost without her man and having him to herself would have served as a better bookend. Like the albums that surround it, 20 Y.O. is not a classic album in Janet’s catalog, but it’s also far from a bad album. It’s a collection of some stellar material that suffers from poor sequencing and creative direction.