I recently saw a Billboard article that ranked every song on Janet Jackson’s fourth studio album, 1989’s Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (we’ll just call it Rhythm Nation from here on out)—though I’m sure most folks think it’s her second album after her landmark album, 1986’s Control—and thought to myself that I could never do such a thing.
For one, perfection is perfection. In fact, this album is SO good that according to an interview with James “Jimmy Jam” Harris on the Questlove Supreme podcast, her historically famous older brother and the GOAT at everything he did, Michael Jackson, is rumored to have gone to producers like L.A. Reid and Babyface, telling them that he wanted to create an album in the same vein that would be both dope AF and address social issues. Basically, even Michael Jackson was like, “Damn, she got me on that one…” He went on to make Dangerous and was never heard from again. I keed, I keed.
Rhythm Nation just turned 30 years old—released on September 19, 1989—and 1) I can’t believe I’m old enough that one of my favorite albums from my actual youth is old enough to be saving for retirement and possibly have a mortgage; and 2) I am amazed at how good this album still is. Look, I’ve long died on the Janet Jackson is one of the GOAT’s hill. I’ve argued that her best albums are better than Michael’s best albums and I not only still believe this but will spend hours arguing with you about it if you’d like.
One of the reasons is that the Control, Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet and The Velvet Rope run is one of the most phenomenal four-album runs in music history. That is also another hill I will die on. Janet owes this stretch largely to her working relationship with the super-producer-extraordinaire team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, a team I could literally not give enough flowers to for how influential their sound was on my childhood.
If you are up on Janet Jackson—and chances are that if you’re reading this, you are—you know that on Rhythm Nation, she wanted to craft an album that addressed societal ills. Janet, who was 23 at the time of the album’s release—think about that shit for a second—became significantly interested in the happenings of the world and decided she wanted to create a project that had meaning, jams, bops and ballads. What we got was the Rhythm Nation project complete with a 30-minute video for “Rhythm Nation,” which required all who watched (OK, maybe not required but compelled) to learn how to do the dance moves AND has shaped the way I count down from five to one for the last 30 years: I always use my fingers, and if a black glove is present, I put it on. I’m not saying I was ever Janet Jackson in “Rhythm Nation” for Halloween, but I definitely thought about it (several times).
(Editor’s note: It’s not too late, Panama. Halloween approacheth.)
Let’s get into the music, shall we? Yes, let’s. This album just so happens to contain my personal favorite Janet Jackson song of all time in the history of forever, “Alright.” I love this song with my whole heart; I often think of this song when I’m having a day that’s gray or lonely. I just stick up my chin and grin, and say, “Through thick and thick to thin, I’ll love you ‘til the end, You know it’s true my friend, You’re alright with me…”
I’m listening to this song as I write this and I’m pretty sure the white woman in front of me in this café wants to ask, so badly, what I’m listening to because of the shoulder lean I just hit right back into the seated-two-step-in-a-chair motion I have going. This song literally makes me move and there’s nothing I can do about it. It clocks in at 6 minutes and 26 seconds and the last 2-plus minutes are just music and if this is the last song I ever hear, well, mama, that’s alright with me. I think you see what I did there. In case you’re wondering, I just spent the last 181 words on ONE song. Thanks, Obama.
But this album is chock full of jams. Lead single, “Miss You Much?” Banger. All of the social consciousness songs: “Rhythm Nation,” “State of the World”? New Jack Swing bangers. “Livin’ In a World (They Didn’t Make)”? Slow ballad banger. “Escapade”? Rollin’ to the club with the homies banger. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”? Awesome video banger. “Lonely,” “Come Back to Me,” and “Someday Is Tonight”? Pregnancy-inducing bangers. “Lonely,” I know is more of a “Hey, boo...make that call to me so we can Netflix and Chill into this smashingtons situation” and is probably a song that belongs on the situationships playlist you have on Spotify, but it lays the groundwork just fine. And if the last two minutes of “Someday Is Tonight” isn’t the musical version of lustful lubrication, then you (the universal you) talked yourself out of it somewhere along the way.
My least favorite song on the album is, remarkably, “Black Cat,” and that’s not even to say it’s not good, I just don’t love it as much as the others. This album bangs all the way through and even if you’re one of those folks who is critical of Janet Jackson’s singing—which is a fair criticism—she lays on top of the tracks on this album perfectly. I’ve long viewed her voice as another instrument, utilizing her vocal talents and layering to evoke the sentiments and emotions she was hoping to transmit. This album (and the next two) are production masterpieces.
One of my favorite memories of this album dates back to October 18, 1990 (which I absolutely had to look up). This is the date that the Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990 rolled into Frankfurt, Germany’s Festhalle. My parents (my father, in particular) loved Janet. And they loved concerts, so they took my siblings and me to see her.
I was 11 years old at the time, and what I remember most of this concert is that when “Miss You Much” was being performed, I was somehow separated from my parents but standing against a rail watching and Janet had on a black bustier number and some older—probably in his late 20s or early 30s—American black dude in the military looked at me like “look at her, man!” and dapped me up because I guess there were no adults around to dap up in acknowledgment of just how bad Janet was; an undersized 11-year-old black kid would have to do. I can still remember the look of pure joy on his face. And I got it.
I got it then and I get it now, because in 1989, I was a part of the Rhythm Nation and in 2019, 30 years later, I am still a part of the Rhythm Nation.
And that’s alright with me.