Janet Jackson had a lot to contend with, more or less, in and around the year of 1997. She had had an emotional breakdown, with long-term depression resulting from issues of her past. This included body dysmorphia, anorexia and self-harm.
Thankfully, despite this personal strife, she was able to focus all this nervous energy into an effort, now beloved album, for both ardent and casual followers of the musician and sexual icon.
This came in the form of The Velvet Rope. Listening to this album even now, twenty years as of Saturday, October 7, it’s easy to see why.
Her hair is frizzy and curly on the album cover. Taut like curled and coiled rope, it certainly appears to be a reference to the album title. Maybe even committing suicide, hanging oneself? There also appears to be a hint of introspection, as the usually extrovert Jackson can’t bring herself to look the listener in the eye.
Opening entrance, “Interlude: Twisted Elegance”, opens with radio feedback and light playing of the piano. Things get jazzy as Janet pontificates how we all need to feel loved.
It’s the album proper with title track, “Velvet Rope”, featuring Vanessa-Mae. It’s resplendent with her soft tones, before kicking with harsh drum. That heavy synth might remind one of DJ Pooh and Kam’s “Whoop Whoop” (originally Malcolm McLaren’s “Hobo Scratch”).
An Exorcist type eerie melody kicks in, taking you far away from the delicate beginning. “We all have the special need, feeling we belong” develops upon what explored in the introduction. Diving strings and feedback see the song to its clattering end. They screech as if trying to reach for the stars.
Then “You”. This one opens with a War sample (“The Cisco Kid”), grooving and moody. The bass, thick, ascending and descending really helps lock in those hypnotic drums. What sounds like hi-hat seems to fade in and out, shimmering and further entrancing you. That funky period of the song, expertly taking its time to appear, finally comes. You’re, in a way, teased it for longer than the original music behind the sample.
The album continues with “Got ‘til It’s Gone”, featuring Joni Mitchell and Q-Tip, which’s kicked back, light and breezy. “If I could turn back the hands of time/Make you, fall in love, in love with me again” seems to express real, mournful regret. When Tip contributes to the laidback feel, things turn up a slightly more urgent notch with raps spilling forth. Things then pare back, just the bass, before normal service resumes.
Next’s skit, “Interlude: Speaker Phone”. Soulful the word for this particular intermission. She and her lady friend indulge in sexual innuendos, and the like.
Coming after is “My Need”. The drums strike as wood on wood, clicking with their percussion. “You’re all I need tonight/Feel so tight” seems evocative of a Mary J Blige and Method Man collaboration (“I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By”). Bass, searching and striving, even appears to play wonderful harmonic chords under a ponderously layered effort.
“Interlude: Fasten Your Seatbelts” has horsing around in this one, as ever.
“Go Deep” is Funkadelic sampled (“One Nation Under A Groove”) to perfection. Moody, deep, thick and head-noddingly funky. “Feeling high, ‘cos I’m out of control” really encapsulates that heady high as you listen to the mighty, stomping bass.
“We go deep/And we don’t get no sleep/’cos we be up all night/Until the early light” hook really furthers that sense of a nonstop party. An almost scintillating nod into another direction then brings you back gloriously to whence you came. Almost to teach you not to take the groove for granted.
Then there’s “Free Xone”, proving she mines for nothing but the best, grooving samples. Starting with soulful bass akin to Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusherman”, it then crashes almost seamlessly into a James Brown-esque frenetic funk workout. It also veers into more experimental territory, less tuneful but equally intriguing. Mixing soul, funk and house music, basically. It ends with a tolling of a bell, Janet declaring: “Free zone”.
“Interlude: Memory” surmises, “You don’t have to hold onto the pain, to hold onto the memory”.
Following that is track “Together Again”. This has shimmering, what sounds, harpsicord. This has really driving, house-esque drums propelling it. “Everywhere I go, every smile I see/I know you are there smilin’ back at me” is a hook full of the joys of life, of, indeed, coming together again.
“There are times when you smile upon me, baby” furthers this sense of ecstatic jubilation. Jazzy, shimmering vibes, propelled by house music rhythms, seems to works quite well, overall.
“Interlude: Online” has ringing phones and the clatter of fingers on keyboard amidst the ringing and buzzing of dial up internet.
Funnily enough, “Empty” feels suitably despondent, but also has a ponderous, searching feel. Very spiritual and ethereal, in many respects. This is another, busy layered effort, electronic drum even more urgent than the house feel from two tracks ago. Ticking, pattering, shimmering percussion descends like the ticking of time, “One, two, three, four” counting down. As if immediacy is required to conquer obstacles. “Damn, disconnected” implies failure.
“Interlude: Full”. This is merely a transition from the fadeout of the previous, to beginning what comes next.
The ferocious “What About” opens with sounds like sedate, Spanish guitar. Things get amped, with rocking guitar chords plus slaps and pops on the bass. She implores, “What about that, what about that, what about that?” Very sassy, daring to be impudent and defiant.
Fretless bass rings out like the tolling of a bell. “What about the times you hit my face?/What about the times you kept on” seems to indicate some sort of strife with a partner, including that in the realms of physical abuse.
“Every Time”, given the content of the previous, maybe hints at a time for reflection. Earnest and sad piano certainly seems to indicate this. The click of drum indicates the beginning of endeavour proper. Her voice is soft and emotive, the guitar emotional in tandem.
Cover track, “Tonight’s The Night”, sees her going from sampling some of the classics in soul and funk genres to actually covering a song in its entirety. This, of course, originally done by Rod Stewart. It’s a curious take on the track, certainly endeavouring to make it her own. Her voice, almost whispering, adds an almost sensual feel to proceedings. Very pure and innocent at the same time, though.
“I Get Lonely” starts, taking you by surprise. Quiet and, again, whispering, it catches you off guard. Then the bass and drum raise it slightly, before the piano and horns raise it emphatically. The moody clap of the drum really locks you in.
“I fell asleep last night, cryin’ like a newborn child” really conveys the depths of sadness to which she’s fallen. Aforementioned horns herald a more sedate section, before building, again, to her cries of isolation. “Every time I see your face, baby” like revealing what makes her crumble.
There’s an album title reference in “Rope Burn”, which has moody popping of bass, descending, perhaps, further into sadness. A curious effect, a glass of water maybe hit with a tuning fork, intermittently grabs the ear. Adding to the atmosphere, indeed.
“Anything” has an enticing swing to it, clicking moodily and weaving its spell. “So are you ready?” a rhetorical question, perhaps. A frequently used word thus far, shimmering, well describes the vibe. What’s more you could also say sensual. The latter being Janet’s stock and trade, of course. Rain thunders down outside as the fire roars inside.
“Interlude: Sad” declares, “You must learn to water your spiritual garden”.
The touching “Special” is an emotional ride. “Because everybody needs to feel real special” seems, with the earnest striving of the backdrop, to indicate a redemption; one whereby happiness overtakes a deep, lingering sadness. Emphatic claps, with what seems schoolchildren singing in harmony for a sizeable key change.
Hidden track, “Can’t Be Stopped”, is a clever sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. “We were born with the blood of kings and queens” appears to be bold racial social commentary.
The bass kicks in with a pulsing fervour, locking in with drums to make a moody, streetwise groove. “Don’t let nobody tell you you ain’t strong enough” a line to suitably end the album, one with Janet telling her fans to strive for their goals.
The classics on this one are “Velvet Rope”, “You”, “Got ‘til It’s Gone”, “My Need”, “Go Deep”, “Free Xone”, “Together Again”, “Empty”, “What About”, “Every Time” and “Can’t Be Stopped”. That last selection ensures these highlights are, indeed, a fair spread across the album’s entire duration.
The sassy, sensual and sexual Janet Jackson was very much on edge recording this album, and the result was a fairly bold and daring piece of work. She laid her vulnerabilities bare, really putting her head above the parapet. Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope can be bought from iTunes here.
Words by Andrew Watson