Rhythm Nation: Music, Poetry, Dance, Unity (Part 2)

If you are just joining us, we’re covering Janet Jackson in the late 80s and early 90s.  Last time, we discussed her breakthrough album, Control.  Today? We are a part of the Rhythm Nation.

Coming off the success of Control, A&M wanted Janet to continue the momentum by releasing an album to be called Scandal, which would continue with the theme of separating from her family.  Jackson was ready to move on from that part of her life, and instead desired to create a concept album about social injustice with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis again at the helm.  The result was Rhythm Nation 1814, an achievement in its innovation of programming and sampling as well as its unique voice in bringing social issues to the dance-pop-R&B arena.  What is remarkable about Rhythm Nation is its ability to maintain a consistent and cohesive sound while exploring different genres.  Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are able to tie together songs like new jack “Alright,” the poppy “Escapade,” and the hard rock “Black Cat” seamlessly.

As a companion to the album, Jackson put together a long-form video telling the story of two friends whose dreams are ruined due to drug use.  Admittedly, the story not very memorable, as my friends and I recalled it being about “gangs or something.”  It did succeed in introducing a distinct look and feel for Rhythm Nation, creating an image for the album that still holds to this day – black and white shots of gritty streets and warehouses juxtaposed with a military-style community of dancers.

To support the album, Janet kicked off her first-ever world tour, which remains the most successful debut tour by an artist to this day.  The tour not only promoted the image and message of Rhythm Nation, it also furthered Janet’s image as a role model for young women – many a teen in the early 90s would don the “Janet Jackson Look” of white shirts, black leggings and black jackets.

Janet did her best to make Rhythm Nation a way of life and a positive message for her young fans.  The album kicks off with the title track.  In a sense you can say Control is about the responsibility of taking care of yourself, and Rhythm Nation is about the responsibility of taking care of others.

The video again has a great look to it, but in terms of message, I’m not sure how helpful a Rhythm Nation is in fighting substance abuse.  It’s like, I’m at the lowest point in my life; it’s literally raining on my face, and I’m scared and afraid – how will I go on?… RHYTHM NATION DANCE TEAM, ASSEMBLE! Shoomp-Shoomp “Ho!”, Shoomp-Shoomp “Ho!” – ??? Joking aside, the music and dancing is pretty badass for Miss Jackson.

Continuing on with the social themes, we have “State of the World” and “The Knowledge.”  “State of the World” steps up the lyrics from the previous track, providing more of a landscape for the message of injustice.  “The Knowledge” is another good choice lyrically, fighting against ignorance and drug use.

Then? The album really takes off with the infectious Chaka Kahn-ilicious “Miss You Much.” It’s songs like this, “Escapade” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” that make you forget this is only one album.  On one hand you have the socially conscious songs, but you also have these feel-good songs about love and camaraderie.  These are solid pop songs with catchy melodies and a danceable beat.

If YouTube existed back in the day, I so would have tried to learn all the moves in this video and danced all day in my basement.

After the thoughtful “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make),”  camaraderie and good times continue with “Alright.”  The song is worth mentioning for its delightful video featuring legends Cab Calloway and Cyd Charisse (whose legs deserved a separate credit even at 67 years old):

The highlight of the “B side” of the album is the Jackson-penned “Black Cat.”  Crisply-produced with a touch of guitar-rock edge, the song gave Jackson crossover appeal and showed that like her brother Michael, she was fearless in exploring sounds outside her wheelhouse:
(video)

Finally, as a tie to the coming of age underlying theme of Control, Rhythm Nation and Janet, we have the smooth and breezy “Someday is Tonight,” which is a companion piece to “Let’s Wait a While.” It’s lyrics directly referencing the latter song off Control, this song is subtle and breathy, with Janet dipping her toes into the waters of sensual R&B.  In its quiet way, it is an introduction to her next album, an album that is a much more vocal celebration of  sexual liberation.  It really, really, celebrates the sexy. Next time? Get your hand fan and fainting chair ready, because we’re taking on Janet.