After twenty years, we look back on the Madonna's spiritual awakening of her magnum opus, Ray of Light.
The Velvet Rope is a metaphor for emotional boundaries as well as an allusion to the individual’s need to feel special. Behind the velvet rope, Janet unveiled her world to the listener. We hear her explore her sexuality, her willingness to experiment with BDSM and her struggle with depression, abuse and self-worth. Janet signed a $80 million contract with Virgin Records prior to the album release and attained the largest recording contract in history at that time. Yet with major success and achievement, Michael Jackson’s little sister still felt, as stated in the interlude Sad “there’s nothing more depressing than having everything and still feeling sad.” Janet used the album and theme to work through the personal demons she needed to overcome, which has become the template for artists to experiment with darker sounds. Though the album was a moment for Janet to heal personally, she used her platform to speak on LGBT community, domestic violence and depression; which was groundbreaking to hear in a pop album in the 90’s. It's time to revisit The Velvet Rope 20 years later.
After suffering from an emotional breakdown at the end of the janet. World Tour, Janet decided to face the struggles she buried for years through her music and making it the concept of the album. Working with her dream team, producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the three created a version of Miss Jackson we had not seen or heard before. In Control, we heard her embrace self-empowerment. Rhythm Nation was on social consciousness through race, class and violence and janet. helped her open with her sex appeal. The Velvet Rope is a mature record that shows the many sides of the superstar as she works through understanding the person she has become. The composition fuses various genres, including pop, R&B, trip hop, folk, jazz, rock, funk and house. What would normally sound like a cluster fuck on most albums with an array of many genres, Jam and Lewis were able to magically blend all the sounds into the perfect package of Janet’s current state of mind.
The album debuted at the top spot of the Billboard 200 charts, selling 202,000 copies its first week and by 1998 the album sold 1.6 million copies. Its first single “Got Till It's Gone” peaked at number 36 on the Hot 100, featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, where the two brought a chill trip-hop vibe over a Joni Mitchell sample of “Big Yellow Taxi”. The visual for the single is one of Jackson’s best, as it captures and celebrates the music, style, and culture in South Africa. Janet, who is effortlessly cool, also rocks bold red hair in bantu knots. This would make #teamnatural/Shea Butter Twitter retweet constantly with the caption “YAS QUEEN” if the video were released today. Even the filter and aesthetics of the video would make every Tumblr and Instagram user wish they had created the style before the video. The video would go on to win a Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video.
The second single was by far Janet’s most successful during the era, “Together Again” which was inspired by her friend who she lost to AIDS. The neo-disco track was inspired by Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”, it reached #1 on the Hot 100 and spent 46 weeks on the charts. It's among one of the biggest selling global singles, selling 6 million copies worldwide. The final single and one of Janet’s sexiest tunes in her discography, “I Get Lonely,” that gives listeners a familiar sound of the sultry pop-R&B which Jackson has been known for. “I Get Lonely” received positive reviews and became Jackson’s eighteenth consecutive Top Ten hit on the Hot 100, becoming the first female artist to achieve that record. One of the most memorable scenes in the visuals for the single is when Janet and her dancers rip off their white button-down shirts to expose her lace black bra, continuing to dance and sing about struggles of loneliness. In the mainstream, Janet was one of the only black artists who wasn’t afraid to be sexy and push the boundaries of how much sex appeal she could show. It paved the way for artists like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé.
“What about the times you said no one would want me? / What about all the shit you have done to me?” Janet proclaims in a stern vocal rage in “What About,” a haunting rock mid-tempo tune about a tumultuous relationship fueled by cheating, emotional and physical abuse. Janet has dug deep with the multiple struggles she dealt with in her first marriage to James DeBrage. They married when she was 16 and expressed he was demeaning and dealt with a drug problem at the time of their short relationship. Later on in the album, Janet speaks to herself in “Special” explaining it was time to reflect on every obstacle she has occurred. Even though it’s painful, she found we must overcome it and discover ways to find love within. Throughout the song, she seeks the need to feel special; which is a juxtaposition for a person who is made to feel special with multiple award shows, made up and adoring fans. Sometimes that just isn't enough. The very last words of the song are “work in progress”—she’s still hasn’t reached her full potential of conquering her pain and finding true happiness.
“He was on the airplane/sitting next to this guy/said he wasn’t too shy/and he seem real nice” Janet sings in a raw tone, “until he found out he was gay. That’s so not mellow.” On Free Xone, she tackles homophobia and those who are intolerable on same sex relationships. Yet Janet makes sure in the 90’s house jam that the LGBT community should feel “free to be who you really are.” In a Rolling Stone interview, she expressed that “I’m singing about accepting yourself and living in a world –a free zone—where the world accepts you.” Which is interesting that Janet is able to inspire those to accept and embrace who they are, yet she struggles with understanding and accepting the person she has become. Janet toys with lesbianism throughout the album. In the interlude “Speakerphone,” she is heard masturbating while speaking on the phone with a female friend. In the cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night,” she alludes to undoing a woman’s French gown. Along with her personal struggles, it seems Janet is also trying to figure out her own sexual identity.
The Velvet Rope ahead of its time and stylistically merging different music and dialogue and emotion to R&B that hadn’t been done before. It helped birth what is now considered Alternative R&B, such as that perform in this genre are The Weeknd, Kelela, Solange and Drake when he’s in his feelings, among many others. It has become the blueprint for may pop stars to branch from their known personas and show their audience their personal side and express their raw feelings, including Christina Aguilera’s Stripped, Britney Spears’ Blackout, Rihanna’s Rated R and even Beyoncé’s self-title. In Jay Z’s memoir Decoded, he cited his song “December 4th” is inspired and similar to “Got Til its Gone.” Transgender activist Janet Mock indicated how the album related to her life, “She was talking about sexual fluidity. She was talking about domestic violence. I couldn’t believe someone was talking about all these issues that were paralleling in my own life.”
Today Janet Jackson is mainly remembered for her infamous wardrobe malfunction, yet she created the blueprint that many of today’s pop stars have used to elevate their careers. She gave hope to those fighting through their own personal struggles all while making us dance. 20 years later, we thank you Janet for letting us behind The Velvet Rope.