Revisit Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope 20 Years Later


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.

4:44: Relating to Relationships Dynamics

Photo Courtesy: SF Station 

Photo Courtesy: SF Station 

Jay Z released his album 4:44 in June and shared his side of the story from Beyoncé’s recent album Lemonade. Just in case you’ve been living in a cave for the last two years, Beyoncé released the critically acclaimed album Lemonade, where she bared her soul and gave the world an insight on the normally private couple’s personal life. Sharing that there may have been infidelity, marital issues and trust issues between the two during their relationship, which shocked the world. Both chose not speak on the album or their relationship however Jay Z released his recent album, and on the LP’s title track, he opened up on their relationship’s imperfections. His ability to be vulnerable gave us insight and proved that this power couple is more like us than we had ever imagined. Hearing their relationship issues made them relatable. But one thing that sticks out is how much power men hold within the relationship when they cause issues.


During Jay Z’s early career the majority of his songs relating to relationships was mostly “me give my heart to a woman? Not for nothing, never happen, I’ll be forever mackin.” Until he met Beyoncé in the early 2001, and slowly we saw a transformation of a softer Jay with his music, lyrics and image throughout their relationship. Although they have always been private about their relationship, we were able to see glimpse of their relationship through their music. In Pharrell’s “Frontin,” Jay Z declared “stuntin like you ain’t my only girl but you are. I’m ready to stop when you are.” And Beyoncé’s first solo single that certified her as a super star was “Crazy in Love” where she sung how sprung she was. But nothing made their relationship’s woes more clearer then when Lemonade dropped with the HBO visual special. This was after the leaked video of Solange beating up Jay Z in the elevator after the MET gala and we all wanted to know what made Bey’s baby sister go off.


On the track “4:44,” Jay takes his time to explain not only his side of his story but basically gets down on bended knees for stepping out of their relationship multiple times and asking for forgiveness.  “Look I apologized, often womanize. Took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes. Took me too long for this song, I don’t deserve you.” Jay admits that it wasn’t until the birth of their first daughter, Blue to realize how much hurt he has caused to Beyoncé and how he really truly doesn’t deserve her after all they’ve been through. Later on he goes, “I’ve seen the innocence leave your eyes. I still mourn this death and I apologize for all the stillborns cause I wasn’t present.” Basically, him stepping out and cheating not only caused Beyoncé heartache but miscarriages and a stillborn. “And I apologize cause at your best you are love. And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about…thinkin’ of all the times you wasted it, on all the basic shit. I apologize.” After listening to the track “4:44,” imagining from inside of their relationship, I couldn’t help but wonder how Jay, who is 15 years older than Beyoncé, not only couldn’t realize how lucky he was to have an amazing woman like the Queen of the Beyhive but also, it took years into their relationship for him to own up to his mistakes and appreciate his union with Ms. Knowles.


Out of context, Bey and Jay probably push through the fire due to the fact that there was a lot at stake in their union outside of romance. Beyoncé soften his image and made him more accessible. Whereas Jay gave her star power (in the early 2000’s Jay was the bigger star, I know crazy to believe.) and some street cred.


Too often I have heard when a man makes a mistake within a relationship that he’s “growing up,” “he’s a good guy (despite his mishaps),” “he has potential.” Why is that? Men have an agency within hetro-relationships that allows them to make as many mistakes within the relationship, because men can grow within the courtship. However, women are supposed to have it all together when they enter the relationship and if they fall short, like Jay, the relationship comes to an end without hesitation. It is okay for men to not understand how relationships work, while the woman waits for their full potential. I came across a tweet that stated, “Does a man ever wait for a woman to get her shit together?”  And very rarely does that happen. Why is that? Why have we been conditioned into believing that men are projects, they are able to be fixed and women cannot have that space within the commitment?


When I look at pop culture that depicts this issue, I automatically think of the August Wilson play and film Fences and the HBO series Insecure. In Fences, Denzel Washington’s character Troy steps out of his marriage with Viola Davis’ character, Rose, and impregnates his mistress. Without hesitation, although Troy place so much emotional turmoil on Rose (due to his yo-yo of emotions), it was expected of her to take care of the baby. She was expected to take care of another woman’s baby in order to keep the family together even though you could tell she was reaching her breaking point.


The opposite happened in the drama series Insecure.  The main character, Issa had been dating her boyfriend, Lawrence for five years, however, he had been unemployed for two of those years,  and began to slack on his end of the stick in the relationship. After many slip ups from Lawrence (forgetting Issa’s birthday, not applying to jobs when he needed to help out financially), Issa steps out of the relationship. After Lawrence finds out, he leaves Issa immediately. Even though Issa tried to be loyal during Lawrence’s hardship, her infidelity overruled her support in order to end the courtship.


Everyday Feminism created a list of “50 Ways People Expect Constant Emotional Labor from Women and Femme” 12 of the 50 were based on the emotional burden women face within a relationship with a man, including “when we end a relationship, we’re often demonized and blamed for not doing enough to maintain it, even if we devoted extensive time and energy to discussing problems and trying to make the relationship work,” “Our significant others expect us to initiate important conversations like defining the terms of the relationship, taking stock of how the relationship is going, and addressing conflicts,” and lastly, “we’re expected to grit our teeth and put up with disrespectful behavior from men because ‘boys will be boys.’”


On Lemonade, several of the lyrics expressed how much Beyonce is carrying the emotional burden within the relationship. “Love Drought,” Bey wonders “all this loving I’ve been given goes unnoticed. It’s just floating in the air, lookie there. Are you aware you’re my lifeline, are you trying to kill me?” Later on, she questions if it were her actions for the reasons why Jay seek love elsewhere, “tell me what did I do wrong? Feel like that question has been posed. “However she still wants Jay to reveal his truth in order to forgive him and continue to build their strong love. In the track, “Love on Top,” (off the album, 4)  a song celebrating love, the lyrics show the cracks that haunted their relationship and they continue to try and make it work. “ Nothing’s perfect” Beyonce sings at the top of her lungs. “But it’s worth it, after fighting through my tears, and finally you put me first.”


The emotional burden is even more fierce when it comes to black women. As they are always walking between either being too soft or being the angry black woman. On Twitter, it’s a common conversation how black men are sick of black women and how they’re much happier with a white woman due to their fragile egos. Iyanla Vazant spoke with three black men to explain why they have decided to date outside of their race. One man stated it was difficult to date black women because of their “strong personality” and inability to “stay in a woman’s place.”Founder of For Harriet, Kimberly N. Foster, touched on this issue and pointed out that “traits that in anyone else would be seen as positive, gets turned into negatives when they exist in black women.”  Foster continues, “We are too independent, too strong, too educated, too focused, too confident.” Foster further explains that when black men dismiss an entire race, especially their own race of women, it’s because they have determined them as the Sapphire stereotype that needs to be called out.  And the reason behind the fact black women may be seen in this matter because black women have to constantly defend themselves from negative descriptions and stereotypes we constantly have to face, from the media, at the workplace, in public, relationships and even from our own people. 


Black women are constantly carrying an incredible amount of weight when it comes to emotional responsibility and it’s no wonder that within a relationship, she would rather wait to see the potential than to fight and leave. In a study from the popular dating site, OkCupid, showed that Black women are the least desirable in America’s dating pool.


Jay Z and Beyoncé sharing an imperfection of their personal life, is incredibly brave as well as makes consumers feel more connected more than ever. Both albums are respectably one of their best albums to date. However, how do we, as women get to a place where we are no longer carrying the emotional labor of the relationship and it’s more 50/50? How will men start allowing us to make the same mistakes and be forgiven as we have forgiven them for theirs? Must we place the blame on society and how they view relationship dynamics or should we start reconstructing from our personal relationships?