Despite any suspicions that the title of Janet Jackson’s new album, Discipline, might be referring to the secret behind the singer’s recent weight loss, the single-word designation was encouraging for those who prefer Janet taking control and cracking the whip (both as leader of her Rhythm Nation and the boss of her bedroom) over the vapid, single-girl come-ons of her last three albums. Disappointingly, the title track doesn’t hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like “I touched myself/Even though you told me not to” and “Daddy, I disobeyed ya/Now I want you to come punish me” invite all kinds of psychoanalysis that only grow more disturbing when you remember who her daddy really is, which would be fascinating if she hadn’t already written the sexier (and less creepy) “Rope Burn.” Velvet Rope was Janet’s finest statement as an artist in that it found her internalizing the political, but simply rehashing her deep-seated desire to be dominated isn’t a step forward.
And moving forward is exactly what Janet hasn’t been able to do, at least creatively, since she split with covert co-writer/hubby René Elizondo Jr. The fact that she got dumb on All For You over the prospect of finding new dick was excusable, but Damita Jo, her first record after shacking up with Jermaine Dupri and exposing her star-shaped hardware to 90 million people, wasn’t exactly the examination of identity and media that it should have been. The woman who once accused Madonna of having no class has spent a decade and a half telling us how, when, where, and by whom she likes to get her pussy eaten. (“The Meaning”—an interlude in the vein of Velvet Rope’s “Speaker Phone,” in which she forced a friend to listen to her masturbate—literally finds Janet reading from a dictionary while pleasuring herself.)
Janet’s second favorite pastime, of course, is dancing, and the suspicion that her interest in nonsexual themes might have been outsourced was hinted at nearly two decades ago when she followed up the trio of socially-conscious tunes that were to ostensibly set the tone for Rhythm Nation with: “Get the point? Good. Now let’s dance.” (As if you couldn’t get the point while dancing, but I digress.) Discipline does address some of the problems with her last few albums: Lead single “Feedback” is only a notch above 2004’s “All Nite (Don’t Stop),” but it possesses all the lyrical sass and club-affability that was promised with 2006’s 20 Y.O. and is thus somewhat of a comeback for Janet. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s absence (for the first time since Control) is, not surprisingly, a non-issue; aside from a track or two, they haven’t really produced anything inspired for their biggest client since the 1990s.
A slew of big-name producers, both new and old, fill in for Jam and Lewis, including Dupri, Rodney Jerkins, Stargate, The-Dream, and Tricky Stewart. As usual, Dupri’s contributions are a mix of pleasant surprises and disappointments: Last time out, JD gave his girlfriend an ’80s freestyle track to call her own (“Get It Out Me”); here, he offers up a slice of spacey Euro-disco with “Rock With U,” co-penned by Ne-Yo. The slow jam “Never Letchu Go,” however, is like an ’80s power ballad without the power—and with two garish soap-opera guitar solos. Janet has delegated all songwriting responsibilities, but the results aren’t any kind of marked improvement, consisting of bits of wisdom like, “Strobe lights make everything…sexier.” Really, Ne-Yo? They usually just give me a headache. Questionable lyrics like “Hoo-ooo, make me cry” aside, the title track, also co-written by Ne-Yo, does boast some interesting vocal arrangements, making it one of Janet’s most successful sex ballads in years.
If one were to try to identify some kind of evolution in Janet’s latest bout of dirty talk, it might be sex with robots. Throughout the album, she talks to and interacts with a rather compassionate computer DJ named Kyoko, and her voice is robotic and synthetic on tracks like “Feedback” and the Daft Punk-sampling “So Much Betta”—not necessarily such a bad thing for an artist whose vocals often consist of unintelligible murmuring to begin with. At 22 tracks, Discipline is anything but disciplined, but it’s also Janet’s most cohesive album in a while. Just don’t call it a comeback—at least not until she reunites with her “greatest ex.”