‘The Velvet Rope’ at 20: How Janet Freed Herself By Getting Bound
By 1997, Janet Jackson had been on a remarkable run. In the just over a decade since she'd broken through with 1986's blockbuster Control, the superstar had churned out a staggering 19 Top Ten hits and delivered a trifecta of critically-acclaimed and multiplatinum-selling albums in Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and janet., as well as the greatest hits compilation Design Of A Decade: 1986-1996. That release fulfilled her contractual obligations to Virgin, and in early 1997, a bidding war ensued for Jackson. Polygram, Time Warner, DreamWorks and Sony Music were among the industry giants attempting to sign Janet away from Virgin, but the label ultimately offered Jackson a whopping $80 million to re-up--the most lucrative contract ever at the time, one that surpassed what Madonna and Janet's megastar brother Michael had earned.
But despite that professional triumph, all was not well with Janet Jackson. She'd internalized a tremendous amount of pain over the years; having been a child star in a famously hyperscrutinized family, a secret dysfunctional marriage to James DeBarge when she was younger that ended abruptly, as well as issues with her body and image--it had all led to an overwhelming amount of insecurity and anxiety. It also led to cutting, and eating disorders. Things crescendoed into an emotional breakdown while she was still on The Janet Tour in 1995. She sought refuge in her then-husband Rene Elizondo, and eventually found wisdom via counsel with professionals and elders.
When it came to record the follow-up to janet., Jackson was ready to lay her soul bare in a way that she hadn't on record before.
"It took me thirty-one years to do this album," she would explain to Danyel Smith in an interview with VIBE that year. "My entire life. I had to run [and] grab a tape recorder because I couldn't write as fast as it was coming to me. A lot of it is about pain. I don't know if its something that we developed as a family, but I developed in this way: if I was ever in any kind of pain, I'd find a way to brush it aside. Eventually it caught up to me."
Her emotional state made the first recording sessions particularly arduous, with several false starts and extended delays as she sought help for everything that was tearing at her psyche. It didn't help matters that her brother Michael had become an extraordinarily polarizing figure in the wake of child molestation allegations, a tabloid-baiting marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and several public controversies. All of the drama in their respective lives led to a period of estrangement between the two.
Nonetheless, in January of 1997, Janet began recording her new album in earnest, and was willing to pour every ounce of her personal experiences into the lyrics. Unlike her previous albums, which mostly had been Jam & Lewis bringing Janet unfinished songs to which she'd add her lyrical contributions; this album would be constructed entirely around Janet's lyrics. The music would have to fit the words, as opposed to the other way around.
In addition to her focus on suppressed trauma and pain, Janet's subject matter was now also exploring sexuality in bold ways. The janet. album had seen her emergence as a full-on sex symbol following the socially-aware focus of Rhythm Nation, but now, Janet was less interested in coy come-ons, this was much more carnal and much more liberated--sex as freedom, sex as power, even sex as identity. She openly addressed her own sexuality, writing about experiences with men and women, BDSM, role playing and curiosity. Unlike Madonna, to whom she'd often been compared, Janet's approach didn't seem to be born of a desire to shock and foster outrage; it was more like an honest expression of her own awakening. This was not a character she was playing--this was her getting real.
The Joni Mitchell-referencing "Got Til It's Gone" was released as the first single in September 1997, and it channeled the same sort of laid-back cool that made 1993s "That's the Way Love Goes" an instant classic. But this was an even more soulful track, with Jam & Lewis clearly influenced by the production talents of newcomer J. Dilla. Dilla would remix the song, which also featured Dilla compatriot Q-Tip. It seemed to indicate a slightly more subdued Janet--but that wouldn't entirely be the case for the rest of the album.
The title track samples World Famous Supreme Team's "Hobo Scratch" and is a better example of the spirit of The Velvet Rope, as Janet coos: "We have a special need/To feel that we belong/Come with me inside/Inside my velvet rope..." The steady throb of "You" shifts things into another gear. It's chugging rhythm and Janet's whispered intro ooze sex, and Janet's vocal was the most Michael-esque she'd ever sounded on a track.
"My Need" is one of the album's highlights, another midtempo groove that seductively moves and twists, with a deft sample of "You're All I Need To Get By" married to a nick from "Love Hangover." It's one of the slickest productions on the album. "Go Deep" is the kind of bubbly pop song that seems to come so easy when Janet, Jam and Lewis are in the studio together and would be a No. 1 dance hit after release as the album's fourth single in 1998. "Free Xone" is a skittering mishmash of drum 'n bass sounds, as Janet muses over flirty encounters and celebrates love in all of it's forms, regardless of sexuality.
"Together Again" is a bittersweet ode to a fallen friend. Written in tribute to a friend who'd recently died of AIDS and for all of those who'd lost loved ones to the disease, it's an upbeat dance track that never wallows in melancholy. Instead, Janet joyously looks to the memory of her friend and the thought of them reuniting for a source of inspiration. Released as the album's second single, it would become Janet's eighth No. 1 hit in late 1997.
Both the interlude "Online" and the midtempo track "Empty" highlight internet romance, which was still a very new (and stigmatized) phenomenon in 1997. Musing as to how this person seems to connect with her on every level, she admits that when she disconnects, she "feels empty" and wonders "does it really count or am I a fool?"
"What About" stands as one of the most explicitly angry and personal songs Janet had recorded up to that point. Alternating between softly sung memories of long walks and romance, the hook explodes in an industrial rage as Janet lashes out: "What about the times you lied to me? What about the times you said no one would want me? What about all the shit you've done to me?"
She told Rolling Stone in 1998: “Elements of the song have to do with me. And elements are from René’s life. Abuse of all kinds –– emotional, verbal –– is incredibly common. The challenge is creating boundaries that shouldn’t be trespassed.”
"Everytime" is one of the sweeter moments on the album, a soft, melodic piano ballad that follows in the same vein as previous Janet hit "Again." Her cover of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night" was notable in that it shifted the tone of the original to indicate that she was singing about a threesome involving her and her man inviting another woman into their bedroom. Each chorus addresses a different sexual partner: "I love you, boy" followed by "I love you, girl."
The album's third single, "I Get Lonely," was a stellar slice of contemporary R&B that became a major hit in early 1998 when it was released as a remix single with BlackStreet. Accompanied by a popular (and undeniably sexy) music video, it would become her eighteenth Top Ten entry and earn a Grammy nomination. The song drew widespread critical praise--particularly for the overdubbed chorus. "Rope Burn" explores themes of BDSM, as Janet seductively croons: "Tie me up, tie me down, make me moan real loud, take off my clothes. No one has to know."
"Anything" features more drum 'n bass flourishes, but it's arguably the quietest moment on the album. On an album steeped in seduction, this track makes a bid for the sexiest offering. Janet's voice rarely rises above her trademark whisper, with lush synths echoing the slinky vibe. It's one of her most effective and affecting bedroom songs and a perfect summation of everything she does well in that department. She closes the album with the upbeat "Special," admitting that everyone wants to feel loved and unique--and acknowledging that "you can't run away from your pain" and "you have to learn to water your spiritual garden."
The Velvet Rope would be released on October 7, 1997. The album was initially met with varied reactions; some critics praised the singer for her bold reinvention both thematically and sonically, while some found it to be too much of a departure from what she'd done on her previous albums. While it may not have had the instant commercial appeal of Control or janet., The Velvet Rope would come to be hailed as one of Janet Jackson's most rewarding and consistent albums. It's a document of a superstar in crisis who found catharsis in unleashing her truest self.
So many superstars of the 1980s had, by the late 1990s, become devoured by their fame: Madonna was veering close to caricature, Prince had fallen from public favor, Michael Jackson was immersed in controversy. But Janet found her greatest artistic voice by delving into her own humanity. She put her hurt on wax for the world to hear, and once again proved that her greatest gift has always been her relatability. She found light in the darkness, and in doing so, became a guiding light for a generation of fans and artists who were struggling with similar demons. None of us are perfect. We're all putting in work to be better.
We just all don't make it sound this good.
Watch Janet Jackson's Video for "Got Til It's Gone" feat. Joni MItchell and Q-Tip:
Watch Janet Jackson's Video for "I Get Lonely":
Watch Janet Jackson's Video for "Go Deep":
Watch Janet Jackson's Video for "Everytime":