Twisted elegance: Janet Jackson’s ‘The Velvet Rope’ is a template for Black pop stars to embrace the darkness
Opinion: In recognition of the 25th anniversary of Jackson’s 1997 album, theGrio examines how “The Velvet Rope’s” gothic tone influenced the late work of artists like Beyoncé and Rihanna
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio
By 1997, Janet Jackson was a global superstar. The younger sister of King of Pop Michael Jackson broke out of her brother’s shadow as Pop’s Queen after a successful run of albums like “Control,” “Rhythm Nation 1814,” and “janet.” She was seen as a regal figure who lived the charmed, carefree life of a celebrity.
But that was far from the truth.
Jackson was quietly dealing with bouts of depression. Her inner turmoil manifested itself in her sixth solo album, “The Velvet Rope,” released on Oct. 7, 1997. Not only did her internal battle reflect in her lyrics, but also in the production and the front-facing style aesthetic of the album.
“A lot of it is about pain,” Jackson said in a 1997 Vibe Magazine interview. “I don’t know if it’s something that we developed as a family, but I developed this way: If I was ever in any kind of pain, I’d find a way to brush it aside. Eventually it caught up to me.”
The album was Jackson’s way of exercising demons and longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis provided her with an expanded canvas of sonics that matched the mature themes she brought to the table. Gone was the exuberance of “When I Think of You” and “Miss You Much.” Even the sexual openness of the preceding album, “janet.,” seemed tame compared with where she was in “The Velvet Rope.”
The new sound and the introspective lyrics resonated with fans. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, garnered two top five Billboard Hot 100 singles in “Together Again” and “I Get Lonely.” The album eventually sold three million copies.
To say that Jackson is an inspiration to female artists would be an understatement. Twenty-five years later, it’s evident how “The Velvet Rope” has influenced today’s singers.
The album’s impact is chiefly seen in the work of two of today’s biggest stars: Beyoncé and Rihanna.
The two have dominated the charts and the cultural conversation over the young 21st century. But it wasn’t just the hit songs themselves, but their respective tonal transitions they took from being Black pop stars to artists. They went through rough times and used their music to showcase their hardships.
“The Velvet Rope” gave them the agency to do so. Without the album, it’s unlikely fans would have embraced Beyoncé’s self-titled album or “Lemonade,” and perhaps Rihanna’s “Rated R,” or “Anti.”
From the first glimpse of the album artwork, you can see how “The Velvet Rope” inspired both Bey and Ri. Jackson’s drastic hair switch-up to curly red, her head down to hide her face, gives the viewer a visual clue about the dark vibes that are coming; it is an ironic photographic indication of a woman removing her mask.
Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” cover borrows from this very sentiment. Blond hair, cornrows, her head photographed from the side, her face down out of the camera’s view. She is tired, enraged, yet empowered. Rihanna’s “Rated R” is black and white; her hand covers one eye, while the other stares angrily into the lens.
The production of “The Velvet Rope” was vastly different from 1993’s “janet.” The atmosphere shifted to more foreboding, ominous, yet eclectic sounds. “Got Til It’s Gone” and “Free Xone” embraced hip-hop’s evolving time signatures and trip-hop’s esoteric uses of samples.
This presented a blueprint for Beyoncé’s sound shift from “4” to her self-titled release. The latter was more atmospheric, ambient, and brooding — evident in “Drunk in Love,” “Mine” and “Superpower.” Rihanna’s production transition from “Good Girl Gone Bad” to “Rated R” was dramatic as well. The pop smashes of “Umbrella,” “Shut Up and Drive,” “Hate That I Love You” and “Don’t Stop the Music” gave way to more menacing beats like “Hard,” “Russian Roulette” and “Fire Bomb.”
“The Velvet Rope” tackled issues of Jackson fighting inner demons on “You,” “Empty,”
and the title track. “You” expresses the bitterness of withholding your feelings of doubt and inadequacy in the face of outwardly expressing positivity for the sake of the fans and the glad-handers.
Beyoncé dealt with this in her self-titled album opener, “Pretty Hurts.” She sings “Pretty hurts/We shine the light on whatever’s worst/Perfection is a disease of a nation.” In Rihanna’s “Anti” opener, “Consideration,” she sings, “I needed you to please give my reflection a break/From the face, it’s seeing now/Would you mind giving my reflection a break/From the pain, it’s feeling now?”
Sexuality has played a big role in the music of Jackson, Beyoncé and Rihanna at multiple phases of their careers. However, Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” took uninhibited sexual ownership with “If,” “You Want This” and “Anytime, Anyplace” and embraced kink with songs like “Go Deep,” “Tonight’s the Night,” My Need” and “Rope Burn.”
Never before had Beyoncé been as sexually present lyrically as she was on her self-titled album. The innuendos of explicit activities on “Drunk in Love” and unveiled sexual exploits on “Partition” were a far cry from songs like “1+1” and “Suga Mama.” Rihanna also experimented with kink on “S&M” from 2010’s “Loud.” “Rude Boy” from “Rated R” speaks of the size of her lover’s manhood.
One song on “The Velvet Rope” — “What About” — encapsulates so much of what Beyoncé, Rihanna and many other Black female artists have sung about. Over the push and pull of a lilting acoustic guitar and finger snaps to explosive electric guitar and bass, it deals with infidelity, neglect, gaslighting as well as abuse of a verbal, physical and sexual nature.
“What About” alone could be an inspiration agent for nearly the entirety of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” Her expansive narrative of marital infidelity from suspicion to rage to indifference to reflection to forgiveness touched a nerve with fans just as Jackson’s performance of “What About” did on her tour and the 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards.
Rihanna famously dealt with such abuse on wax with “Man Down” from 2010’s “Loud.” Her tale of fatefully shooting a man who raped her is a type of murder ballad not atypical for dancehall and reggae listeners but sounds jarring and shocking to a pop audience. But she dared to not only record the song but to release it as a single that went double platinum.
Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” was not all doom and gloom. It was accompanied by self-acceptance and embracing one’s heritage.
Her videos for “Got Til It’s Gone” and “Together Again” illuminated the beauty of African culture from dandy culture to tribalism, respectively. Beyoncé creating the “Black is King” visual album or Rihanna exploring the outward expressions of her Caribbean roots may not have been possible if not for Jackson’s visuals.
One of the hardest things to do as an artist is to convey your humanity to your audience in the face of immense success. When the world sees you as a rich pop star with endless access to the material treasures, you are the envy of all who walk the earth.
Without a doubt, “The Velvet Rope” opened doors for Black female pop star to openly and viscerally discuss the taboos of depression, sexual hedonism and domestic violence without barriers.
Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.
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