The 25 Best Janet Jackson Songs

5

“What Have You Done for Me Lately”

It’s cute that the single that introduced Janet as a pop force in her own right was a side-eye-darting kiss-off. Control was a project centered around the quintessential kid sister stepping out from the shadows and flexing her autonomy. “What Have You Done for Me Lately” is an obsessive snit building an entire case around the reasons someone else is in charge of our protagonist’s every waking mood. In other words, Janet’s first bona-fide hit is saddled with the notion that, despite all “this time I’m gonna do it my way” assertions elsewhere, one simply can’t do it alone. That’s a pretty bittersweet prologue for all that followed, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s brilliantly piquant piano accompaniment couldn’t be more appropriately calibrated. Henderson

4

“The Pleasure Principle”

While the title track of her 1986 breakthrough Control found the singer taking the reins of her professional life, the album’s final single, “The Pleasure Principle,” found her taking control of a personal relationship by refusing to settle for loveless materialism: “What I thought was happiness was only part-time bliss,” an all-grown-up Janet sings. Written and produced by one-time Prince keyboardist and Jam and Lewis cohort Monte Moir, the entire song parallels a fleeting love affair with a ride in a limousine, while the synths bump like busted shock absorbers and the electric guitar screeches like rubber on pavement. Janet, vis-à-vis Moir, invokes “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song she would more blatantly call on for 1997’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” while Moir, Jam, and Lewis—and, on the superior single mix, Shep Pettibone—pave over every soul tradition to put up a clanking, whirring, smashing industrial park. Cinquemani

3

“When I Think of You”

From its indelible opening piano chords to its crisp, reverb-y drums and joyous horn stabs, “When I Think of You” is less cluttered than many of the tracks Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would go on to produce for Ms. Jackson. Her first-ever #1 hit, the single also practically defines the “feel-good” sensibility of nearly half of Jackson’s catalogue, capturing the exhilaration of new love without ever slipping into treacle. Cinquemani

2

“Rhythm Nation”

“No struggle, no progress,” Janet warns at the start of the second verse of her 1814 call to arms, but the only real struggle to be heard is her trying to shoehorn a slant rhyme from the last word by awkwardly emphasizing its second syllable. In that split second, yes, she’s very much a 23-year-old trying to justify her own contribution to the great conversation. In every other respect, “Rhythm Nation” still sounds like the most confident, assured, and focused of her soon-to-be profuse efforts to synergize her mass appeal with her need to proselytize. The brand of rebellion Janet’s peddling—racial equality, utopian dance combinations—was even then naively family-friendly, but that’s where Janet’s neophyte delivery makes all the difference. At the tail end of the ’80s, the promise of the ’60s couldn’t have seemed more dearly departed. But the youthful vigor of “Rhythm Nation” is eternal. Henderson

1

“If”

As mentioned earlier, much of the sex on janet. is impending or simply imagined. And “If,” the very title of which embodies that fact, is essentially about masturbation, with Jackson describing what her lover’s “smooth and shiny [cock]” feels like against her lips while ostensibly rubbing herself off under the covers. Even the dance-rock track’s principal sample, given full spotlight during a musical bridge that morphs the original’s buoyant anticipation into carnal frustration, bears out this theme: “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Just not yet. Or maybe ever. Cinquemani

Previous