The Emmy Awards robbed Beyoncé for the multilayered fabulousity of Homecoming, this we know for sure. But that’s another conversation. Consider for now that whenever stans debate whether Bey has fully inherited Michael Jackson’s crown, they’re skipping over one iconically important Jackson.
On September 19, 1989, 23-year-old Janet Damita Jo Jackson released Rhythm Nation—the most commercially successful album of her decades-long career. She paired the release with a record-setting world tour and the first visual album in music history: a 30-minute, Grammy-winning long-form video of the same name. Yoncé spent her 2014 Halloween in homage dressed up as Rhythm Nation Janet, paying full respect to every female pop star’s early inspiration. Here’s why.
Formally titled Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, the album propelled seven singles into the Billboard top five, an achievement never seen before or repeated since. Those songs [including “Miss You Much,” “Escapade,” “Alright” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”] dominated radio for three years, with number one hits in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Unprecedented. In the end, Rhythm Nation sold 12 million copies: the top-grossing album of 1990 in an era full of legends like Whitney Houston, Prince, Madonna and her own brother. Aside from a unicorn like Adele, no one comes near those kinds of numbers in the age of Tidal and Apple Music streaming.
We could be discussing an album called Escapade right now, full of radio-friendly R&B songs in the vein of Janet’s 1986 breakthrough, Control. Her label A&M Records encouraged just that kind of musical sequel, and TBH, most female singers on modern-day urban radio successfully follow that formula as we speak. But Miss Jackson envisioned something deeper: a socially conscious suite of songs recalling Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” only for the dance floor. For months she sequestered herself in Minneapolis, home of her formerly Prince-affiliated producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, churning out tracks inspired by the 1989 schoolyard shooting in Stockton, California, and other CNN headlines of the time.
Brother Michael sang “Man in the Mirror” in ’88, but that song encouraged looking inward not outward. The contemporaneous artists talking about issues like police brutality, racism or drug abuse then all came from hip-hop. Sonically Janet, Jam and Lewis moved away from the LinnDrum beat machine of Control to embrace what rap producers used: the E-mu SP-1200 sampler. The parents of ’80s babies heard the dense funk of “Rhythm Nation” and sensed Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” underneath. The mechanized percussion stomping through Rhythm Nation dates the album but fell in step then with producer Teddy Riley’s new jack swing (the first blend of R&B and hip-hop from way back when the genres still sounded distinct from one another).
“We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs,” she tells us all at the outset of the album. “We are like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color lines.” Thirty years later, that world sadly has yet to materialize. “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” ends with reports of a school shooting, far more commonplace in 2019 than 1989. And no one would have predicted that bankrupt real estate magnate Donald Trump would eventually pedal white supremacist policies as president of the United States. But barely out of her teens, Janet made social consciousness digestible for fans not quite ready for the messages in Bob Marley’s reggae or Fela’s Afrobeat. From Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” to Beyoncé’s “Freedom,” the legacy of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 stands tall.Share :