You'll probably think she's being clever, hiding her bare breasts that way. On the cover of Janet Jackson's new CD Damita Jo, in stores today, the pop superstar is shirtless and shot in profile with her arms folded across her chest. She's looking at us; her smile, as usual, is bright and coy.
Although the photograph was taken before the "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl in February, you might think Janet's mocking the incident that sent millions of Americans back to their puritanical roots. We haven't seen or heard much from her in the past month or so. Maybe that's just what she wants us to think.
After the Super Bowl stunt, Virgin, her label, rush-released "Just a Little While," a corny rock track from Damita Jo that radio didn't embrace. But her current single, the old school-Motown-like "I Want You," is steadily picking up some heat. And the charming video (sans the hot dance sequences we've come to expect from Janet) is in regular rotation on MTV and BET; it also features the singer's boyfriend, producer Jermaine Dupri.
So what is Janet's focus on her new joint?
The same thing she's been panting about since 1993: sex. Rough and raw. Sweet and romantic. She's the only woman in pop pushing 40 who still plays that freaky-shy-girl-next-door role. She's discovering sensual pleasures, exploring her body and having a great time, it seems. We have always known that Michael's baby sister is a tease. And that hasn't changed on her eighth album, whose title is her middle name.
This sexual obsession started on the self-conscious janet album in '93 and continued on 1997's The Velvet Rope, a weak and self-conscious outing. Damita Jo is no different, really. It's a somewhat seductive if slightly predictable pop record - silky in some spots, boring in others. As always (and rightfully so), Janet's foil-thin voice is low in the mix - more of an accent than a centerpiece. The meticulous grooves rule as Janet sighs, pants and whines the melody.
The CD starts off promising enough. On the sizzling "Damita Jo," the sex kitten gives us a peek at another side: "Sexy, quiet/shy but down for a good time .../Makin' headlines/Feel I'm too deep .../Simple inside/But I'm livin' the diva life ..." Nothing too revealing there. But part of what makes Janet so appealing after two decades in the oh-so-frivolous world of pop is her impeccable sense of suggestion, her air of mystery, if you will. She knows just how far to push. It's not something done well in pop these days, especially with the emergence of tell-it-straight hip-hop. Janet, however, seems to show us one thing, but what she's hiding has got to be more thrilling. So with every album, with every video and tour, we think we will eventually get the whole shebang.
We all know that the Jacksons are kookier than the Addams Family. But Janet has always seemed so balanced, which is the reason we're so curious about what she's not revealing.
Damita Jo isn't as autobiographical as the performer would like us to think. She's only going to tell us so much. On one of the five boring, dragging interludes, she goes on about how she loves the islands ("Anguilla, that's my favorite") and how she loves humidity, sand, palm trees, a good book and ... who cares?!?
She pulls us in, though, with the delicious Quiet Storm cuts: "Spending Time With You," "Warmth" and "Truly." Her vocals are feathery, layered and almost hypnotic. This being a Janet Jackson album, there are, of course, get-on-up dance cuts. "All Nite (Don't Stop)" rides a looping funk guitar line, and "R&B Junkie" bounces on an electro-funk sample from Evelyn "Champagne" King's 1981 smash "I'm in Love." Janet gets kinky (and a little pornographic) on "Strawberry Bounce." Hip-hop's hot boy of the moment, Kanye West, is the only thing interesting about the pedestrian "My Baby."
Typical pop album
Overall, Damita Jo is a typical contemporary urban-pop album: beat-heavy, hip-hop-friendly, spotty and too long. Janet has been using the same formula for about 20 years now. And she's flashing that wide, perfect smile all the way to the bank.
She knows we'll keep coming back.