That the songs on Janet Jackson’s first-ever comprehensive hits collection, Number Ones, have been sequenced in chronological order only magnifies the impact she had on late-‘80s and early-‘90s pop, when she helped define the sound of Top 40 radio along with the likes of Madonna, Prince, and her brother Michael. By way of former Time musicians Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet’s breakthrough album, Control, gave Prince’s Minneapolis sound a distinctly feminine—and, with songs like “What Have You Done for Me Lately?,” “Nasty,” “Control,” and “Let’s Wait Awhile,” a distinctly feminist—spin. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 was an even bigger tour de force: The album spawned a record-breaking seven Top 5 singles and found Janet eclipsing her big brother for the first time—as she would continue to do for more than a decade.
If that album reflected the zeitgeist of guilt-driven social consciousness in the ‘80s, janet. and especially The Velvet Rope, arguably Janet’s richest work to date, tapped into the teeming sexual repression leftover from that decade. Jam and Lewis’s signature clattering percussion and synths softened as Janet’s abs hardened and Babyface’s brand of lush R&B took over pop airwaves in the early part of the decade. The treacly “Again” and Rhythm Nation‘s hair-metal “Black Cat” are the only songs here that haven’t aged well (hell, they were both terminally cheesy at their time of release), but the album’s first 30 tracks make a convincing case for Janet as one of the most consistent pop artists of the last 25 years.
But just as Number Ones‘s sequencing highlights Janet’s impressive early years, it also underscores her startlingly abrupt decline. Except for maybe R.E.M., no other former superstar act has been as prolific with such diminishing commercial and creative returns. Not including her two pre-Control releases, Janet has released more albums this decade than during any other, but only one (the mediocre All for You) could be considered a success, and the “hits” from her last three albums are a mere footnote here.
Janet’s previous compilation, Design of a Decade, wisely opted for the single mix of “Alright” but eschewed Shep Pettibone’s remix of “The Pleasure Principle”; here, we get a similar version of “Alright” (though I could have done without Heavy D’s rap, which sullies an otherwise perfect early-‘90s house relic), but Pettibone’s superior take on “Pleasure” remains relegated to old 7” singles and imports. Meanwhile, “I Get Lonely” appears in its original incarnation rather than the popular BLACKstreet version that’s listed in the credits, while the sex-drenched “Any Time, Any Place” is the shortened, more pedestrian mix courtesy of R. Kelly, who manages to make the song less sexy.
Still, these are minor quibbles for a package that gets almost everything else right. “You Want This,” the final single from janet., is the sole Top 10 not represented, but that’s due to the liberal but dubious criteria defined by the album’s title, and it’s more than made up for with the inclusion of the largely forgotten R&B chart-toppers “Diamonds” (with Herb Albert) and “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (with Luther Vandross), as well as the more notable “Scream” (with Michael) and “What’s It Gonna Be?!” (with Busta Rhymes). The sole new offering is “Make Me,” a throbbing disco number produced by Rodney Jerkins that pays homage to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (“Don’t stop till you get it up,” Janet coos in typical horned-up fashion) but which is unlikely to return the singer to pop radio.
Following his stellar work on “Feedback,” Jerkins has proven himself to be the best of the new collaborators Janet has tried on throughout the past decade, but one can’t help but wonder if she can ever score another hit without her longtime partners in crime. It can’t be a coincidence that the last time she cracked the Top 10 (eight years ago) was also the last time Jam and Lewis were steering the ship (while they received a credit on 20 Y.O.‘s “Call on Me,” the blame for that misguided trifle falls squarely on Jermaine Dupri’s stout shoulders). If Number Ones does nothing else, it’s a convincing document of Jam and Lewis’s enduring work with Janet, that they are to her what Moroder and Bellotte were to Donna Summer. Now if only they’d dust off their old ‘80s synths and get back to work.