Janet Jackson got spooked by Madonna. Or so it seems. Madonna, you'll recall, yanked her sure-to-provoke-conversation antiwar video for "American Life " a year ago, just days before its release. She replaced it with a boring parade of flag-flapping that didn't conceal the subpar song, and didn't boost attention for the song or her new mediocre-at-best album, American Life. It was Madonna's biggest flop of her career.
Maybe Jackson paid no attention, but several folks in her camp must have, and they surely advised the superstar to go through with the conversation-igniting Super Bowl breast-reveal, hopefully ensuring that her first single and album in years marked a better fate. It's doubtful Jackson planned the stunt to be quite the reveal it was. She also didn't count on the backlash, a backlash that has actually caused her the same fate as Madonna: public apathy to her music. Initial sales of Damita Jo were disappointing, to say the least.
Damita Jo is little different in spirit from her previous body of work. Jackson sounds as shy as ever, with her soft, girlish voice generally taking a back seat to the melody and the rhythm. She may not be working exclusively with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis this time out, but the album remains consistent, mining much the same club-oriented R&B that is her stock in trade, and producing tracks that flow well one from another.
That's the good news. Now here's the bad: the album, in effect, is largely flat, offering Jackson's least satisfying collection to date. There's no truly exceptional track to anchor the album, and very, very few songs plant themselves firmly in your head to savor hours later. Jackson needs to retire the annoying practice of including pseudo-autobiographical filler between tracks. These interludes don't reveal anything but a narcissistic attitude, also revealed in her repeated references to her celebrity and her formation of an identity around her middle name, which gives the album its title.
The worst news of all: the best tracks on Damita Jo are likely to be barred from commercial airtime, or in the case of first single "Just A Little While, " never really get past go. "Sexhibition, " "All Nite " and "Moist " are downright dirty. Not dirtier than ever, but certainly dirtier than media gatekeepers are willing to accept from Jackson at this point in time. "I put my hands up on you (babe)/I wanna feel your sexplosion… I'll drive that ass crazy, " goes one salacious line from "Sexhibition. " That infectious, jittery song reaches its whiplash ending with Jackson scolding, "Relax, it's just sex. " Was it added as a response to the Super Bowl reaction? Or was it a mere foreshadowing of her turn of events? Whatever the intention, the command works as a nice little jab at her critics. The song makes no apologies. And ultimately none are needed.
Though it was reported years ago that Jackson was a fan of Cesaria Evora's mournful, languid music, until now there was never any real hint of influence. Damita Jo sparkles at several points with the slow-moving tropical island heat characteristic of both Evora's torch-song balladry and her native Cape Verde island life. Nowhere is this reflected better musically than on "Moist, " which evocatively captures an afternoon tropical rainstorm. But that's not the moisture, exactly, to which the title refers. And that's where Jackson decidedly does not emulate Evora. "I'm wet for you boy… I hope you like drownin' in it, " she sings.
Unfortunately for all of Damita Jo's consistent and pleasing teasing, Jackson doesn't make us wet this time around.