Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Soul Start: Janet Jackson's Debut Turns 30

When Janet Jackson, literally, bounded onto the global musical stage, it was in a (slightly) precocious fashion. Her uncertainty, while apparent, was masked by her gleaming professionalism, a killer smile, and surprisingly astute vocal talent. Jackson charmed immediately.

Anyone could assume Janet Jackson's music career was assured due to her lineage. Her being "a Jackson" no doubt opened many doors, but it wasn't a guaranteed ticket to lasting impact or success.

When Jackson "arrived" in 1986 with her third album Control, to her uninitiated audience (whites), she had finally stepped out of the Jackson 5's shadow. The reality is that her tentative trek began in 1982 on her demure debut Janet Jackson. Without the diminutive success of Janet Jackson, the seeds that flowered on Control and beyond would not have taken root. Now, 30 years after Janet Jackson's first musical statement, The QH Blend examines the flicker of Janet Jackson that turned to a flame.

The History
Janet was the youngest of the Jackson clan and despite appearing in two of the Jackson television specials (in 1973 and 1976), she didn't see herself as an entertainer. Later, an audition with television executive Norman Lear led to Jackson appearing on a slew of shows: Good Times (as Penny Gordon, 1977-1979), A New Kind of Family (as Jojo Ashton, 1979-1980), Diff'rent Strokes (as Charlene Duprey, 1980-1984), Fame (as Cleo Hewitt, 1984-1985). Jackson had stated many times that after she realized her gift/comfort with acting that she wanted to pursue it, but also decided to move into business law too.

Her remarkably grounded approach seemed to fit, but just a few years before Jackson's turn into television work she'd experimented with music. Clearly music was a part of her upbringing, she'd been featured singing background on many of the family projects. In fact, if one were take into consideration the amount of records released by each Jackson (alone or together) between 1969 through today, the Jackson's have placed hundreds of singles and albums on a swath of charts around the world. By the time Janet released her debut in 1982, almost all of her family had released a record of their own, making her one of the last of the Jackson's to record an album.

Jackson shared in her semi-memoir, 2011's True You, about her first independent musical venture: "I wrote my first song when I was nine, it was called "Fantasy". I wasn't self-conscious, because I didn't take it that seriously." Jackson recorded herself and forgot about the track, later discovered by her brother Randy and her father Joe. When both of them realized Janet produced "Fantasy," Joe Jackson knew it was time for his daughter to move into music, much to her dismay.

During Jackson's already hurried schedule on Diff'rent Strokes, she inked a deal with A&M Records. Assembly earnestly began on her eponymous debut under her father Joe Jackson's shrewd guidance.

The Record
In the early '80's, black music was at one of its many crossroads. The drop-away in disco had created a slight diaspora, on the other end R&B's musical soil was far from salted. The white mainstream persona non grata attitude toward black dance didn't mean it died, it flourished, taking on a host of new influences. In particular, many R&B acts were making use of new studio technology, taking cues from power pop and punk, and hip-hop was amassing strength with each passing month. MTV was about to blow open music altogether, genres aside, especially with her brother Michael's aid.

It was in this period that Jackson, at 16, was being groomed to make her mark. A&M quickly put together a who's who of black music taste and talent. From the production/songwriting end, duties were split between RenĂ© Moore, Angela Winbush, and Leon Sylvers III.

The former were one of the hottest urban duo's in the early '80's with LPs like RenĂ© & Angela (Capitol, 1980) and Wall to Wall (Capitol, 1981) which featured their compositions. They handled the first side of Janet Jackson. The latter, Leon Sylvers III, was just as prolific. A member of the popular family crew The Sylvers, he went onto to become a major producer at Solar Records, home to acts like Shalamar and Lakeside. Sylvers handled the second side of Janet Jackson, and brought along a few of his talented siblings into the session work areas.

Said session musicians included: Jeff Lorber (synthesizers), Andre Fischer, Paulinho Da Costa, and Emund Sylvers (percussion/drums), Jerry Hey (horns), Bobby Watson (bass), Marlo Henderson (guitar), Jerry Weaver and Foster Sylvers (rhythm arrangers), and Ben Wright (string arranger) to name some. Further, Jackson's vocal back-up was solid with contributions by Howard Hewett (of Shalamar), Phillip Ingram, Patricia Sylvers, and Dana Myers.

Often referred to by some as "the pink Off the Wall," Janet Jackson actually bore no contributions from any of her family. The Off the Wall (Epic, 1979) comparison is understandable as it drew from a similar place of rhythm and blues tempo elevations, but wasn't on the same level of iconic stature as that of her brother's masterpiece. That said, Jackson's debut was floor filling, playfully innocuous, and with its few sewn in tricks, Janet Jackson was a black teen dream.

The opening salvo "Say You Do" shimmered with a bountiful Jackson in full voice. The original vinyl release version differed from the extended mix featured on the compact disc pressings. Either way, "Say You Do" was a slice of tarty groove. Additional entries into this field included the pressurized funk-fizz contained in "Don't Mess Up This Good Thing," the sprightly "Young Love" and "The Magic is Working."

Echoes of "When I Think of You" could be heard in the "scat-over-percussion" break in "You'll Never Find (A Love Like Mine)," an exceptional number from Jackson's debut. Again, her vocal performance here was at its brightest hue, its feverish youth contagious and adept. The black new wave pulse and pound of "Come Give Your Love to Me," with its off center beats and guitar, gave a level of maturity not expected so early in Jackson's career. Such fusion experiments would become hallmarks in her work later on.

The only misfires included the syrupy slower numbers "Love and My Best Friend" and "Forever Yours," all of which could have appeared on her brother Michael Jackson's pre-Epic era solo work at Motown in the early '70's.  Jackson didn't seemed to be tuned into these slower numbers, showing no signs of the balladeer she'd become further on. On the whole, Janet Jackson was a succinct and accessible vehicle to endear herself to a younger audience, but without alienating adults in the process.

The Impact
When Janet Jackson arrived on September 21st, 1982, she was only one of her four siblings that had albums circulating on the market in 1982: My Special Love (Polydor) by sister LaToya, Let Me Tickle Your Fancy (Motown) by brother Jermaine, and (of course) Thriller (Epic) by brother Michael.

While Michael's platter went on to reshape popular music culture down to the atom, modest successes were bestowed to LaToya and Jermaine, especially on the ever-loyal R&B charts. Janet's album fell somewhere between LaToya and Jermaine's humble returns and Michael's stratospheric heights.

Janet Jackson spun off five singles starting in July of '82, finalizing a year later in July of '83: "Young Love," "Come Give Your Love to Me," "Say You Do," "Love and My Best Friend," and "Don't Mess Up This Good Thing." The combined U.S. Billboard chart statistics for three of the five of Jackson's first singles was impressive: "Young Love" (#6 R&B, #64 Pop), "Come Give Your Love to Me" (#17 R&B, #58 Pop, #30 Dance Music/Club Play), and "Say You Do" (#15 R&B, #11 Dance Music/Club Play). Appearing on popular music shows such as Soul Train and American Bandstand, Jackson gave her first enthused performances, even then the consummate show woman. Jackson also did an impromptu performance of "The Magic is Working" on Diff'rent Strokes in character as Charlene Duprey. 

A popular African-American paper, The Baltimore Afro-American, favorably reviewed the album in October of 1982, and captured the overall sentiment of the Janet Jackson project. When the dust had settled, Janet Jackson placed at a respectful #63 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and scored higher at #6 on the U.S. Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. Jackson's elevated placings on the R&B charts evidenced Jackson's affinity with her people, one that continues to this day. The totals for Janet Jackson still remain unaccounted for, possibly due to having to be re-certified by A&M Records, which the label has to pay out for.

Janet Jackson Performing "Say You Do" on Soul Train, Circa 1982

Jackson continued to move onward as a recording act and actress, Dream Street appearing in 1984. Jackson scored another two hits with "Don't Stand Another Chance" (#9 R&B) and "Fast Girls" (#40 R&B). Notably, "Fast Girls" was produced and written by Jesse Johnson, a member of the Minneapolis funk group The Time. It marked the first connection between Janet Jackson and the sound she became intertwined with from her third long player Control onward. Her cohorts, later to be longtime co-creators, were The Time defectors Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The legacies of Janet Jackson and Dream Street were given new life when Jackson, at the behest of longtime fans, revisited the hit singles live from both albums on her fifth concert tour Rock Witchu in 2008. 

Janet Jackson as an album stood as a girlish, wide-eyed glance into a much simpler, but no less compelling Janet Jackson. It also laid bare where her roots took to ground and have not relinquished despite her ability to crossover to a larger pop constituency. Those that argue that Jackson is a "pop" singer are sadly mistaken. Jackson's debut proves that she never forsook where she came from, it was always right there. At the beginning. Three and a half stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: Janet Jackson has long since been out of print physically. It is available digitally via iTunes or any other digital music outlet. The physical copies circulating can be found online or in some used music stores (where I acquired mine). The cost can range, as seen here on the Amazon page listing for the album. Visit Jackson at her official site: Janet Jackson.-QH]


JNez said...

wow this is great! this is the review i would have written had i enjoyed janet jackson's 1982 debut cd but it was too riddled with c-list r&b pop/rock shlock for me. thank heaven for 1986 & control...only then did i begin to take notice of janet as a serious artist & this was intensified to the umpteenth power with janet jackson's rhythm nation 1814 in 1989. still, your post about her debut cd is a fantastic glance into the makings of an r&b pop superstar!

Jennifer said...

Wonderful write-up QH of early Mama Jan! 30 years...wow.

I agree with JNez. This and 'Dream Street' are purely for Janet completest as they are both riddled with mediocre material. Sorry. Still we know the situation that Janet was in at the time as she had little 'control' over her sound and this is what she was given. No shade to Rene & Angela, but they just saved their best material for themselves.

But I'm glad you touched on the state of R&B artists after the disco balls lost their shine, that rarely gets talked about and I find it a fascinating period in Black music history. I still say disco didn't die...it just got a new pair of shoes so landmark albums like 'Thriller', Madonna's debut, Shannon's debut, and Prince's '1999' were essential to bringing R&B back on the right track and the act of 'crossing over'.

But I will say that off of this I LOVE "Young Love"--so fun, and "Say You Do" works for me. Oh, but the best track for me is "Come Give Your Love To Me". Just a fantastic song thanks to Foster Sylvers of the sorely underrated Sylvers family. Now THAT song was an interesting look for Janet---shame it never latched on throughout the whole album. We'd be having a very different album if it had been that way!

Anonymous said...

Great piece on Janet - still love the album