`20 Years Old'? C'mon, Janet, act your age

CD Review

September 26, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Once you start seeing her splashed on magazine covers without much clothing, you know Janet Jackson is about to come back with a new project. In the past two months, she has posed topless on the cover of Vibe and in a black two-piece lingerie set on the front of King. The performer has been announcing her periodic returns in such a way for more than a decade now.

Soon after her "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl halftime show 2 1/2 years ago, Jackson released Damita Jo, a leaden and ridiculously pornographic waste of studio time. Wisely, she took a two-year hiatus after the album produced no major hits. During the break, Jackson gained 60 pounds and lost it just in time to start the clothes-optional promotion campaign for her new and 10th album overall: 20 Years Old, in stores today.

The CD's title refers to the 20th anniversary of the release of Control, Jackson's 1986 classic pop breakthrough and perhaps her finest album. According to publicity materials, the title also refers to the way the artist feels these days: "like half my age."

Though the album is a step above Damita Jo, the 16-track CD, overseen by So So Def label founder and longtime beau Jermaine Dupri, basically reworks the same formula she has used since 1993's janet, her first album-long ode to her sexuality.

On the thumping club jams, which dominate the first part of 20 Years Old, and on the breathy ballads during the second half, Jackson still coos her sexual desires, though not as explicitly as she did on her previous effort. On the new album, she is still the girl next door with the coy smile and not-so-secret naughty ways.

But here's the problem: At 40, Janet (as she is billed these days) is not a girl. She's old enough to have given birth to some of today's pop vixens for whom she set the template, namely Britney Spears, Ciara and Rihanna.

There is a definite need for a style and musical evolution.

"I want her to take a path like Madonna's," says Marc Lamont Hill, a pop culture expert and assistant professor of urban education and African-American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. "Madonna has always reinvented herself in a way that's age-appropriate. Janet is putting her breasts on every magazine cover she can find. ... I think she has always held back creatively. She gets into these musical comfort zones until they die. The days when guys dreamed of a planet where all the girls looked like Janet are gone."

Hands down, Beyonce is the sepia sex goddess of the moment. But Jackson apparently wants to remain a contender. Though 20 Years Old is more ingratiating than the forced B'Day, the hit new album by the former Destiny's Child focal point, none of Jackson's songs is particularly memorable. Some of the cuts sound like retreads of fading urban musical styles. Instead of setting trends as she did 20 years ago, Jackson seems to be following them. "Call on Me," the pop vet's duet with Nelly and the album's first single, feels like a half-hearted attempt to re-create "Dilemma," the 2002 smash duet between the St. Louis rapper and Kelly Rowland. The current single, "So Excited," is a pedestrian mix of the Southern crunk sound and R&B with needless verses from Khia, an explicit C-list female rapper. It sounds like a Ciara clone. In the video, Jackson overplays the sexy image yet again, flaunting her breasts.

"Young audiences don't buy into the sex-kitten image because they say she's too old to carry this off," says Vicki Kundel, president of Leader Brand Strategists, a brand marketing company based in Chicago. "Older audiences don't buy into the act because, even though she is sexy, she's trying to be a sexy 20-year-old instead of a sexy 40-year-old, and there's a difference."

Ian Drew, West Coast editor for Us Weekly, interviewed Jackson for the magazine's June cover, on which she appeared in a bikini bottom and midriff-baring top. The issue detailing the superstar's weight loss was the magazine's best-selling issue ever. He says that, at this point, any publicity for Jackson can only help her.

"She's at a pinnacle in her career," he says. "She's [taken] enough time to plan a project to catapult herself into the stratosphere where she belongs."

Whether 20 Years Old does that remains to be seen. Jackson is certainly one of the most important black female pop stars to emerge in the past two decades. After Control broke, she and her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were poised to push the boundaries of dance-pop the way Donna Summer did in the '70s (but without the sky-ripping vocals, of course).

But after energetic and sometimes substantive genre mash-ups on 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson has mostly stayed in the same vapid sexed-up role as the music behind her has echoed trends set by others.

"She has a vulnerability about her, and she would do well with audiences to promote that in her songs and style," Kundel says. "Songs and sentiments that speak to her troubled journey and the path that she has taken to self-acceptance and understanding would resonate more with audiences than her fake sex-kitten image. Even if the lyrics didn't speak to her vulnerability, her staging and style could."

It would be a true "comeback" if Jackson stepped out and tried something that bold and different. After all, she did it 20 years ago.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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