Every Janet Jackson Album Ranked

We took a look back at the icon's catalog and ranked all 11 studio albums from worst to best.

Janet Jackson
Photo: Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson’s music career can be easily partitioned into three eras, with her commercial peak (from 1986’s Control through 2001’s All for You) bookended by her early, pre-breakthrough period on one side and the years following her infamous Super Bowl performance in 2004 on the other. There’s perhaps no better testament to the power of Janet’s breakthrough album, Control, as a quintessential statement on personal and artistic self-actualization than the still pervasive misconception that it’s her debut, with 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street relegated to the singer’s “prehistory.” But while it should surprise absolutely no one that the quartet of albums that Janet released during her imperial phase handily top this list, her most recent effort, 2015’s Unbreakable, was an understated return to form, reuniting the artist with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Janet’s follow-up, Black Diamond, was scheduled for release this year before the Covid-19 pandemic dashed those plans. While we await word on the fate of Janet’s 12th studio album—and accompanying concert tour—we’ve decided to look back at her catalog and rank all 11 albums from worst to best.

Dream Street

11. Dream Street (1984)

Before Janet struck multi-platinum with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, she briefly partnered with another famous production pair, Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte. With the exception of the title track, though, the legendary disco duo’s contributions to Janet’s sophomore effort, Dream Street, fell far short of their iconic work with the likes of Donna Summer. Janet’s least successful album isn’t without its pleasures though: Produced by brother Marlon, “All My Love to You” successfully apes Off the Wall-era Michael, while the sexy, nearly seven-minute “Pretty Boy”—courtesy of Jesse Johnson, who, along with Jam and Lewis, was part of the Time—provided a glimpse of things to come in Janet’s own oeuvre. Sal Cinquemani


20 Y.O.

10. 20 Y.O. (2006)

20 Y.O. was the first Janet album that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced (this time only in part) after moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats melted into a lugubrious, lukewarm pudding (at under an hour, it still feels almost twice as long as janet. and The Velvet Rope). I don’t know what co-producer and Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri thought he meant when he said he wanted 20 Y.O. to sound like an old Human League record, but I’ll readily admit that the evidence on display suggests he was the only one with the foresight to come up with some new old ideas, even if none of them work to Janet’s advantage. The album’s desperation is that of a dance icon who once sent one hot track after another to the top of the charts and is now deciding she liked the idea of being at the top of the singles charts better than creating immortal dance music. The grindcore “This Body” brings the fugly with surprising abandon, throwing hissing industrial clatter atop an admirably tuneless dirge (you hardly realize it’s a way-late bid in the chopped n’ screwed sweepstakes until the 16 RPM guest rap drops in). “Enjoy” is a seamlessly smooth step groove aboard R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” boat, but its presence here only makes the likes of “Get It Out Me” and “Roll Witchu” seem all the more opportunistic. Eric Henderson

Janet Jackson

9. Janet Jackson (1982)

If on its own terms Janet’s self-titled debut has nothing on what was to follow, it’s nonetheless a pretty solid snapshot of the post-disco boogie sound. At least, that is, for the duration of side one, where singer-songwriters René & Angela (best known for their steamy funk workout “I’ll Be Good”) serve Janet with three equally perky-cute dance-pop ditties, and one halfway decent ballad. Janet was clearly still finding her voice, but the snappy backing track of “Say You Do” could easily have slotted into the Jacksons’s 1980 album Triumph, and “Young Love” has the confident pristineness of a Patrice Rushen jam. Things get pretty generic on side two, but two or three deep cuts from an artist who came out of the gate only half-formed ain’t half bad. Henderson


8. Discipline (2008)

The title of Discipline 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 previous three albums. Disappointingly, though, the title track doesn’t hark back to the self-empowerment of Control, but rather the S&M of The Velvet Rope. Lyrics like “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.” 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. Cinquemani


Damita Jo

7. Damita Jo (2004)

At some point during the afterglow of adolescent sexual discovery, most people realize that there are more important things in life than getting off. Like Marvin Gaye, Janet got it backward, spending most of her post-Rhythm Nation career searching for, publicly relishing, reflecting on, and then lamenting one giant, decade-long orgasm. The singer’s eighth album, Damita Jo, features a slew of the gooey, structureless sex ballads that had become her staple, including “Warmth,” three-and-a-half minutes dedicated to describing how Ms. Jackson If You’re Nasty gives a blowjob (and yes, she’s a method actress, whispering sweet nothings with her mouth full). Even the dance numbers don’t stray from her topic of choice. Janet’s infamous wardrobe malfunction is commonly cited for her career’s precipitous decline, but her inability to evolve beyond her sex kitten persona is more judiciously to blame. Cinquemani

All for You

6. All for You (2001)

From Janet’s Cheshire grin on the album’s cover to a puddle-deep, pun-filled intro that, on past efforts, would have served as a statement of purpose, All for You is a surprisingly upbeat breakup album. There are copious references to Janet’s divorce from René Elizondo Jr., who evidently wielded significant creative influence over the singer’s most successful projects: “Ha ha, hoo hoo/Thought you’d get the money too/Greedy motherfuckers try to have their cake and eat it too,” she snipes on “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You).” The majority of the album, however, is a celebration of Janet’s newfound singledom, resulting in frothy, frivolous pop devoted to the exploration of her favorite pastime: intercourse. The strength of the album’s singles—“All for You” and “Someone to Call My Lover,” among them—is hard to deny, but songs like “When We Oooo” and “Love Scene (Ooh Baby)” never delve much deeper than their titles suggest. The scathing “You Ain’t Right” and “Trust a Try,” with its theatrical vocal arrangement, searing electric guitars, and cinematic strings, proves Janet is far more compelling when steeped in high drama. Cinquemani


5. Unbreakable (2015)

If many of her previous albums could be said to represent various stopovers on a journey through grief (with Rhythm Nation standing in for anger, Damita Jo bargaining, and 20 Y.O. denial), Unbreakable finally reaches acceptance. A casual disengagement characterizes much of the album, which could be taken for a flaw by those who most value the urgency of her earlier efforts but will reward listeners who approach it with a parallel sense of passivity. With the exception of “BURNITUP!,” whose breathless all-caps title begs to be liberated from the rest of the album, even the dance tracks on Unbreakable float more than they stomp. The album’s password, repeated multiple times across various songs, is “plush,” a word that signifies comfort, which, the longer “No Sleeep” goes on and the less it holds together, comes to indicate not material comfort, but the security that comes from knowing and owning your emotions. Janet has calculatedly played the humble-grateful card countless times in her career, but Unbreakable, a ready-made collection of deep cuts, is one of the first times she’s given a fully convincing performance. Henderson


4. janet. (1993)

It wasn’t until the third album into her rhythm renaissance before Janet finally let herself explore her own heretofore underutilized pleasure principle. With two fingers, even. janet. (or Janet, Period) is absolutely off the rag. Taking a notable cue from Madonna’s Erotica escapades, Ms. Nasty drops trou—except on the immortal cover art—and, like a moth to a flame, burns like a fire of good times even Leni Riefenstahl-lensed, production-number socialism couldn’t hope to mandate as effectively. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis may have worked with more disciplined results, but their sound never seemed so perceptibly opulent. (As Robert Christgau wrote, “The difference between hearing it on a cheap box and a booming system is the difference between daydreaming about sex and having somebody’s crack in your face.”) If Janet is Jam and Lewis’s own personal Dietrich, janet. is their Motown-tracked Scarlet Empress. Henderson


Rhythm Nation 1814

3. Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989)

“Don’t get me in here acting all silly now.” Nice try, Janet, but with Rhythm Nation, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got you in here acting all sober now. At least for three or four songs, anyway. The follow-up to Control’s redux debut is in equal measure self-enlightened, self-defining, and self-pleasuring. The title track and “The Knowledge” lean heavy on new-jack beats, while “Alright” and “Escapade” radiate the Minneapolis sound at its warmest (she must’ve recorded them the one week it didn’t snow there). And with seven hits—the last of which reached number one almost a year and a half after the album was released—it was one of pop’s biggest chartbusting juggernauts. Get the point? Good. Henderson


2. Control (1986)

Despite the brouhaha made about Michael’s little sis stepping out from the family shadow, Janet wasn’t the only star born with Control: The album’s industrial, aggressively speedy beats—a relatively new concept for R&B at the time—turned Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis into pop music’s new visionaries. Their unique blend of sparse, Minneapolis funk, sweet bubblegum pop, and inventive synthesized vocal treatments proved so definitive that Janet spent the rest of her career working with the duo. Ironically, it could very well be that Jam and Lewis’s sound, a crowded wall of percussion, played a major part in generating the most persistent slam against Janet—namely, that her voice is too thin. But one can only assume that critics who have leveled this charge against Janet somehow missed the explosive “gimme a beat” vocal pyrotechnics she unleashes all over “Nasty” or completely dismissed how perfect her tremulous hesitance fits into the abstinence anthem “Let’s Wait Awhile.” In the end, pop music is almost always about the discovery of the next big thing, and Janet’s crowning moment in Control was among the biggest. Henderson

The Velvet Rope

1. The Velvet Rope (1997)

In every conceivable way the most “adult” album of Janet’s career, The Velvet Rope is also the most naïve. Its vitality owes almost nothing to its stabs at sexual frankness. Because, truthfully, a lot of the “naughty” material doesn’t exactly seem that much more convincing than the Prozac-fueled aphorisms of the follow-ups, nor is it more politically intriguing than her advocacy of color-blindness in Rhythm Nation. “Rope Burn” isn’t so ribald that Janet doesn’t have to remind listeners that they’re supposed to take off her clothes first, though producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s Chinese water torture beat does approximate sonic bondage. It’s hardly surprising that when Janet uses the word “fuck” in “What About,” she’s not talking about it happening to her. For a sex album that also seems to aim at giving fans an unparalleled glance behind the fetish mask, Janet’s probably never been cagier. But behind the sex is something even more compelling, because it gradually dawns on you that Janet’s use of sexuality is an evasive tactic. That it’s easier for her to sing about cybersex (on the galvanizing drum n’ bass “Empty,” one of Jam and Lewis’s very finest moments) and to fret about her coochie falling apart than it is to admit that it’s her psyche and soul that are in greater danger of fracturing. Soul sister to Madonna’s Erotica (which, in turn, was her most daring performance), The Velvet Rope is a richly dark masterwork that illustrates that, amid the whips and chains, there is nothing sexier than emotional nakedness. Henderson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil

Next Story

With “Positions,” Ariana Grande Aims to Set Her Status as Pop’s Reigning Princess