One of the albums I’d want to take along with me to that proverbial desert island is Rhythm Nation 1814, the fourth studio album by Janet Jackson. At the time of the album’s release in September 1989, I wasn’t what you’d call a huge fan of hers, though I’d really liked her hit songs “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, “Nasty” and “When I Think of You” from her hugely-popular 1986 breakout third album Control. In fact, I actually resented her a bit for a short while due to the fact that “Miss You Much”, the lead single from Rhythm Nation 1814, kept my then-favorite band Tears For Fears’ single “Sowing the Seeds of Love” from reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (“Sowing the Seeds of Love” and “Miss You Much” were released a day apart in late August 1989, and both entered the Top 40 on September 9th.) But as Jackson continued to release a succession of superb singles from the album, I got over my juvenile grudge and grew to love it, eventually purchasing the CD.
Rhythm Nation 1814 is a concept album that Jackson’s label A&M Records was initially set against. Like many music labels (and movie studios) who tend to want to repeat what successfully worked before, A&M wanted her to record another album like Control, but she wasn’t having it. Troubled by stories about crime, gangs, drug abuse and other tragedies she saw on the news, she wanted to make an album that touched on socially conscious themes, with a positive message of unity.
Given her popularity and youth (she was 23 at the time), Jackson believed that, through her music, she could reach a younger audience who may have been unaware of what it meant to be socially conscious. She herself was inspired by musicians like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman, and U2, however, she felt their music appealed primarily to adults who were already invested in social change. In a 1989 interview with USA Today, she stated: “I’m not naïve; I know an album or a song can’t change the world. I just want my music and my dance to catch the audience’s attention and hopefully motivate them to make some sort of difference“.
For the recording of Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson once again collaborated with songwriters and record producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the geniuses behind the massive success of Control. Jackson does not possess a particularly strong singing voice, so the duo created a sound and style for her that played to her talents and rather limited mezzo-soprano vocal range. Over the course of her career, she’s received criticism for the limits of her vocal abilities, especially when compared with some of her contemporaries like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey who had powerhouse voices. That said, her vocals seem most effective either on strong anthems where she can boldly belt out the lyrics, or on tender love ballads where her soft, sultry purrs work especially well. Also, because her voice did not translate particularly well to on-stage live performances, Jackson enhanced her act with elaborate dance routines. Normally, I’m not impressed by that kind of thing, but in Jackson’s case, I make an exception because of her strong charisma and likability.
The album title was a combination of a theoretical utopian nation inspired by the unifying power of music, represented by “Rhythm Nation”, with “1814” representing the year the national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written. The trio co-wrote six of the album’s songs, while Jackson solely wrote “Black Cat” and Jam and Lewis wrote the remaining five. The album was recorded in Minneapolis over a period of seven months, during which Jackson, Jam and Lewis chose to isolate themselves, without interference or involvement by anyone from A&M Records. The album was produced primarily with synthesizers and drum machines, specifically the use of sample loop and swing note and synthesized percussion techniques that had become popular by the late 1980s.
The album contains a total of 20 tracks, 12 of which are actual songs, with the other 8 consisting of interludes lasting anywhere from a few seconds to over a minute. These interludes serve as connectors or transitions between songs or groupings of songs. The tracks were sequenced beginning with those addressing societal injustice and transitioning to songs about love, relationships and sexuality. Musically, the album encompasses a variety of styles, such as new jack swing, pop, hard rock, dance and industrial music, which gave it wider appeal across multiple radio formats. And though some of the tracks sound fairly similar, with rather ubiquitous beats and melodies, they’re still incredibly upbeat and fun.
Although the album’s concept was initially met with mixed reactions, its production values and overall song quality earned it widespread critical acclaim. Rhythm Nation 1814 peaked at #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and has sold over 12 million copies worldwide. Rolling Stone ranked the album at #277 on its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2012. Seven of its singles – “Miss You Much”, “Rhythm Nation”, “Escapade”, “Alright”, “Come Back to Me”, “Black Cat” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” – reached the top five on the Hot 100, making it the only album in history to achieve this. Four of them reached #1, and it’s also the only album in history to produce number one hits in three separate calendar years – 1989, 1990 and 1991.
The album opens with “Interlude: Pledge”, a 47-second spoken word piece where Jackson essentially explains the album’s intent, then launches into “Rhythm Nation”, an electrifying dance anthem with heavy industrial beats built around the punchy bass groove of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”. Jackson commandingly exhorts us to come together for justice: “People of the world unite / Strength in numbers we can get it right, one time / We are a part of the rhythm nation.” The song was the second single released from the album and peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
One of the most poignant songs on the album is “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make)”, inspired by the tragic 1989 shooting at a school in Stockton, California. The lyrics speak to the innocence of children, and that hate is something they’re taught by adults. “Escapade” is a joyously upbeat and celebratory anthem that always lifts my spirits, and is my all-time favorite Janet Jackson song. Set to an exuberant hip-swaying dance beat and colorful instrumentals, the hopeful lyrics speak to forgetting one’s problems, letting loose and having a good time: “Come on baby, let’s get away / Let’s save our troubles for another day / Come go with me, we got it made / Let me take you on an escapade.” It was the third single released from the album in January 1990, and the second to reach #1.
The hard-rocking “Black Cat” was a stylistic departure for Jackson, and was produced by Jellybean Johnson, who along with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, was a former member of The Time. With its aggressive driving beat and metal rock guitars, it sounds like a song Def Leppard or Mötley Crüe could have done. Jackson snarls the biting lyrics warning a rebellious friend about their self-destructive substance abuse habit. The song was the third single from the album to reach #1.
“Love Will Never Do (Without You)” is another standout, with its strong sensual beat and rousing choruses, not to mention the great trumpet flourishes played by Herb Alpert, who Jackson had previously worked with on his 1987 hit song “Diamonds”. It was the seventh single to be released from the album, more than a year after its initial release, and you’d have thought that by now, interest would be waning. But not at all, as the song would become the fourth from the album to hit #1, in January 1991.
The final three tracks on the album are sensual slow burns, featuring sultry melodies and lush orchestration, with her vocals sounding softer and silkier than ever. My favorite of the three is the gorgeous and bittersweet “Come Back to Me”. I’ve always been a sucker for lush orchestration and soaring strings, and this song has them in spades. Jackson’s gentle vocals are perfect for this type of song, in which she softly laments with a palpable sense of heartache and despair over a lost love affair that she hopes can be rekindled. The song’s arrangement is first-rate and the stirring cinematic strings are really stunning. “Come Back to Me” was the fifth single released from the album, and peaked at #2, held down by Mariah Carey’s monster debut hit “Vision of Love”. So now I found myself rooting for a Janet Jackson song to reach number one!
The album closes on a steamy note with “Someday is Tonight”, a song about submitting to carnal desires. The song is downright sexy, and is to Jackson’s discography what “Love to Love You Baby” was to Donna Summer’s, if you get my drift. She coos and purrs her way through the song, accompanied by sultry beats and strings, and highlighted by Herb Alpert’s smoldering trumpet solo. The song was a precursor to Jackson’s evolving music style that would see her more fully explore sexual themes on her following albums Janet and The Velvet Rope. Both of those albums would receive massive critical and commercial acclaim, with Janet becoming her best-selling album. For me, however, Rhythm Nation 1814 remains her finest work.