Release Year: 1989
When she started her career, critics tried to lump Janet Jackson with pop singers, like Whitney Houston and Madonna. Wanting to show the world she wasn’t your average diva, Jackson took on a bold concept for her fourth album. Though fans, critics, and her record company didn’t initially know where she was going with a socially conscious message, Rhythm Nation ended up being one of her most successful albums. While it’s not perfect it still remains the essential Janet Jackson record and one that pulled her from under her big brother‘s shadow.
For this record, Jackson wanted more control over her music and she decided to go with a concept album addressing several socially conscious themes. But rather than have the songs be boring, Jackson aimed to blend these messages with the dance music she loves. This is heard loud and clear on the intense title track. With lots of banging and clanging sounds, taken from industrial, mixed with pop, R&B, and a bit of rock, the singer calls for racial harmony while expressing her love of dance. It’s still one of the best tracks on the LP and one of her most intense overall. Just from listening to it, you can’t help but think of the military stylized video that was so popular on MTV. The whole thing has this rough, raw vibe to it and with a cry for social change, its message can still be applied today.
“State of the World” continues the theme with funky new jack swing music and R&B that gets you moving, even though the lyrics are a little bleak. While the song focuses on homelessness, Jackson tries to optimistic by singing “Let’s weather the storm together.” Though it doesn’t grab your attention like the previous track, the music is still fun and upbeat. Listeners may be thrown off when hearing references to teen pregnancy in a dance song, but at least she attempted to be socially conscious without sounding boring or self righteous. “The Knowledge” is about the importance of education and learning how to read. Though at times it sounds like an after school PSA, it has good intent and Jackson’s spoken word style makes the song stand out.
There’s nothing wrong with musicians wanting their songs to be about something important, but the problem most of them run into is the messages grow tired, dull, and repetitive over the span of 40 minutes. Jackson avoids this by throwing in some feel good numbers that makes you forget how shitty the world is for a little while. “Miss You Much” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” both celebrate finding the one person that makes your heart go crazy. Both songs are catchy as hell and really upbeat. Though they are more on the pop side, they maintain some of the hard hitting, mechanical sounds found on previous tracks. “Escapade,” my favorite, is the ultimate feel good song. It’s about letting loose, leaving your worries behind, and just having a good time before life hits you in the face. What’s interesting is the opening riff, which is bright and steeped in power pop, sounds similar to Prince’s “1999.” It may not be intentional, but it’s something I noticed while listening to it.
“Black Cat” is another great song on the album and one that emphasizes Jackson’s sexual energy. Even though the song is about acid abuse, it’s the sexy, sick guitar riff that wraps around you, luring you in. It definitely has a hard rock sound and Jackson even puts a bit more edge in her voice to complete the mood. In terms of the music and the overall vibe, it reminds me of something Joan Jett would do. Just listening to it makes you feel like the sexiest badass to walk into the bar, or the park if that’s where you are when you hear it.
While Jackson does return to the conscious theme one more time on the slow “Livin’ In A World They Didn’t Make,” the rest of the album is full of ballads. “Lonely,” “Come Back to Me,” and “Someday is Tonight” all deal with love, either lost or found, and all drag out so long you get bored by it. None of them are terrible, but compared to the other tracks on the album, they’re not exciting or even memorable. If anything, they show off Jackson’s sensual, sexual side she would emphasize later in her career. They all kind of sound the same as well. It’s just weird that an album that begins with something energetic an as fierce as “Rhythm Nation” ends on such a slow, boring note as “Someday is Tonight.” If you’re into slow jams then maybe you won’t find a problem with it, but it was too much for my tastes.
Even if the album isn’t flawless, you have to admire Jackson for the conceit. She wanted songs that made people think about the world we live in, but still make them appealing to her fans. By mixing in her love of dance music with socially conscious ideas, she manged to make songs that were interesting and thought provoking. Sometimes artists who want to talk about issues plaguing the world do it in the most dull or self-righteous manner. Jackson never strays into that territory and even realized listeners don’t want to be bombarded with depressing reality for 40 minutes. After all, not every aspect of life is terrible.