On Oct. 7, 1997, Janet Jackson’s sixth studio album and her fourth STRAIGHT BANGER in a row (following Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and Janet.), The Velvet Rope, was released to the masses. That means it is fixin’ to turn 20 years old. I remember going to Tower Records on Peachtree Road in the Buckhead section of Atlanta to stand in line and purchase the album with a bunch of my boys from Morehouse.
What I also remember about this time is that I did not like this album when I finally got home and listened to it. I don’t remember smoking crack—maybe that’s how crack works; you have faint memories of use—but looking back, I was absolutely tripping. I was falling down all the stairs and stepping on all the cracks and breaking all the backs. The Velvet Rope is pure bangeration, solid jam after solid jam, helmed by Janet’s go-to wonder team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Janet continued to get her grown woman on with this album, which had plenty of songs about sexuality in most forms. She even had a song (one of my personal favorites) about finding love on the internet, “Empty.” In 1997—before that was a thing. Now folks look at you crazy when you tell them you found each other the old-fashioned way—over chicken strips at a strip club. With its lead single “Got ’Til It’s Gone” featuring Joni Mitchell and Q-Tip, Janet tap-danced with hip-hop-centric styling for her album as well, along with songs like “You” and “My Need,” which you could absolutely spit that Dylan-level hot fire over. The drums, man. Got to be the drums.
You know, what I forgot until I looked at the track listing is how dedicated to the super-long format Janet Jackson was. The Velvet Rope clocked in at over 75 minutes with 22 tracks (including the hidden track). Rhythm Nation was nearly 65 minutes long with 20 tracks, and Janet. was also 73 minutes with 28 tracks (though half were skits/interludes). You’d think Master P was A&Ring the album and was like, “Naw, trust me. More is better. Ugh.” Luckily, her albums were so diverse musically that you weren’t likely to get bored. And The Velvet Rope kicked that musical diversity into high gear.
We had some house, some jazz, some folksy-sounding musics, some über-pop and some down-tempo balladry that Janet was so good at bringing to the yard. “Anything” stacks up with some of her best, though I’m not sure if anything really tops “Anytime, Anyplace.”
While “Together Again” was the album’s highest-charting single, “I Get Lonely” was the heat. Between the horns, the light synths and her appropriately apportioned whisper sing toward the end, “I Get Lonely” is the song that gets me hype when I’m in the car, which means that you’re likely to see me getting my entire life while you look over and really want to join in because of how much fun I’m having.
Now, is this Janet’s best album? No. In fact, I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing among me, myself and I about which of her offerings tops the list. Most of these arguments center around Janet. and Rhythm Nation to me, but I’ve discussed this question with Janet stans and the answers range, range-ily. For my money, I think I’m going with Janet. because it’s where she started to get mad personal in long-form. Rhythm Nation, though, has my favorite Janet song, “Alright,” on it, and that always sways me. For me, that puts The Velvet Rope at No. 3, though you could make an argument for Control in there. Listen—Janet is awesome, so it’s all fair game and OK.
Where The Velvet Rope wins out to me (and to critics upon its release) is just HOW varied she was in sound. Sonically, this album manages to reach all over and do it well; the soundscapes complemented the lyrics and her voice. Janet has never been the best vocalist on the planet, but she uses her voice about as well as any member of the Jackson family. The Velvet Rope is the perfect showcase.
So if you haven’t listened to The Velvet Rope in a while, go on ahead and pull it up and let the dulcet tones of Janet’s voice take you on a sexually explicit ride in parts and an inward look at overcoming depression and loving self in others. Janet gave you everything you could ask for in one album ... after doing so on Janet. It still sounds as fresh as it did in 1997 and could fit well in today’s marketplace.
It was a great album back then, even if it took me a while to get it, and it’s an even better one now, from one of the greatest entertainers we’ve had. And yes, I mean that. So don’t get lonely; tonight’s the night to listen to The Velvet Rope. Go to your free xone and fill up on some Janet; don’t be empty. Because the truth is, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
See what I did there? Naw. That’s OK—Janet does.