Editor’s note: The following article is an editorial and the opinions expressed are those of the author. Read more theGrio reviews
In 1997, Janet Jackson was a global superstar. The younger sister of King of Pop Michael Jackson has emerged from her brother’s shadow as Queen of Pop after a string of hit albums like ‘Control’, ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ and ‘Janet’. She was considered a royal figure who lived the charming and carefree life of a celebrity.
But that was far from the truth.
Jackson was quietly dealing with bouts of depression. His inner turmoil was manifested in his sixth solo album, “The Velvet Rope”, released on October 7, 1997. Not only was his internal battle reflected in his lyrics, but also in the production and frontal style aesthetic. from the album.
“A lot of it is about the pain,” Jackson said in a 1997 Interview with Vibe magazine. “I don’t know if it’s something we developed as a family, but I developed it this way: if I ever had pain, I would find a way to ward it off. Eventually it caught up with me.”
The album was Jackson’s way of exercising her demons, and longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis provided her with an expanded canvas of sounds that matched the mature themes she brought to the table. Gone is the exuberance of “When I think of you” and “I miss you a lot”. Even the previous album’s sexual opener, “janet.”, seemed tame compared to where it was in “The Velvet Rope.”
The new sound and introspective lyrics resonated with fans. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, earned two top-five Billboard Hot 100 singles in “Together Again” and “I Get Lonely.” The album finally sold three million copies.
To say Jackson is an inspiration to female artists would be an understatement. Twenty-five years later, it’s obvious that “The Velvet Rope” has influenced singers today.
The impact of the album is seen primarily in the work of two of today’s biggest stars: Beyoncé and Rihanna.
The two dominated the charts and cultural conversation during the young 21st century. But it wasn’t just the hit songs themselves, but their respective tonal transitions that they took from black pop stars to artists. They went through tough times and used their music to show their struggles.
“The Velvet Rope” gave them the agency to do just that. Without the album, fans are unlikely to have embraced Beyoncé’s self-titled album or “Lemonade,” and perhaps Rihanna’s “Rated R” or “Anti.”
From the first look at the album cover, you can see how “The Velvet Rope” inspired both Bey and Ri. Jackson’s drastic hair change to curly red, with her head down to hide her face, gives the viewer a visual clue to the dark vibes that are coming; it is an ironic photographic indication of a woman removing her mask.
The cover of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” borrows from that very sentiment. Blonde hair, cornrows, her head photographed sideways, her face hidden out of the camera’s field of view. She is tired, enraged, but powerful. Rihanna’s ‘Rated R’ is in black and white; his hand covers one eye, while the other stares angrily into the lens.
The production of ‘The Velvet Rope’ was very different from 1993’s ‘janet’. The mood shifted to more eerie, eerie, yet eclectic sounds. “Got Til It’s Gone” and “Free Xone” embraced hip-hop’s evolving time signatures and trip-hop’s esoteric uses of samples.
This laid out a blueprint for Beyoncé’s change in sound from “4” to her self-titled release. The latter was more atmospheric, ambient and brooding – evident in “Drunk in Love”, “Mine” and “Superpower”. Rihanna’s production transition from “Good Girl Gone Bad” to “Rated R” was also dramatic. Pop hits ‘Umbrella’, ‘Shut Up and Drive’, ‘Hate That I Love You’ and ‘Don’t Stop the Music’ gave way to more menacing beats like ‘Hard’, ‘Russian Roulette’ and “Firebomb”. .”
“The Velvet Rope” addressed Jackson’s issues battling inner demons on “You”, “Empty”,
and the title track. “You” expresses the bitterness of holding back your feelings of doubt and inadequacy in the face of the outward expression of positivity for the sake of the fans and the happy.
Beyoncé addressed this on her self-titled debut album, “Pretty Hurts.” She sings “Pretty blesss / We shine the light on what’s worse / Perfection is the disease of a nation”. In Rihanna’s “Anti,” “Consideration,” she sings, “I needed you to give my reflection a break / From the face, it shows now / Would you mind giving my reflection a break / From Is the pain feeling now?
Sexuality has played a big role in the music of Jackson, Beyoncé and Rihanna at several phases of their careers. However, Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” took uninhibited sexual appropriation with “If,” “You Want This” and “Anytime, Anyplace” and embraced kink with songs like “Go Deep,” “Tonight’s the Night “, “My Need” and “Burnt Rope.
Never before has Beyoncé been so lyrically sexually present as on her self-titled album. The insinuations of explicit activity on “Drunk in Love” and the sexual exploits exposed on “Partition” were a far cry from songs like “1+1” and “Suga Mama.” Rihanna also experimented with kink on 2010’s “Loud”‘s “S&M.” “Rated R’s” “Rude Boy” is about the size of her lover’s manhood.
One song on “The Velvet Rope” – “What About” – encapsulates much of what Beyoncé, Rihanna and many other black female artists have sung. On the back and forth of singsong acoustic guitar and snapping fingers to explosive electric guitar and bass, it deals with infidelity, neglect, gaslighting as well as the abuse of nature. verbal, physical and sexual.
“What About” alone could be an inspirational agent for nearly all of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” Its expansive tale of marital infidelity from suspicion to rage to indifference to reflection to forgiveness touched a nerve with fans just as Jackson’s performance of “What About” did on his tour and the 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards.
Rihanna dealt with such abuse in wax with “Man Down” from “Loud” in 2010. Her story of fatally shooting a man who raped her is a type of murder ballad that is not atypical for listeners of dancehall and reggae, but that sounds shocking and shocking to a pop audience. But she dared to not only record the song, but also release it as a single which went double platinum.
Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope” wasn’t all bad. This came with self-acceptance and adherence to his heritage.
His videos for “Got Til It’s Gone” and “Together Again” illuminated the beauty of African culture, from dandy culture to tribalism, respectively. Beyoncé creating the “Black is King” visual album or Rihanna exploring the outward expressions of her Caribbean roots might not have been possible without Jackson’s visuals.
One of the hardest things about being an artist is conveying your humanity to your audience in the face of huge success. When the world sees you as a wealthy pop star with unlimited access to material treasures, you are the envy of everyone who walks the earth.
Without a doubt, “The Velvet Rope” opened the doors for the black female pop star to openly and viscerally discuss the taboos of depression, sexual hedonism, and domestic violence without barriers.
Matthew Allen is a music and culture entertainment writer for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, television producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He has interviewed Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and many more for publications including Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer and Soulhead. Her video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.
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