The “Y.O.” in the title of Janet-née-Jackson’s new album doesn’t let on whether the first letter is plural or singular, whether it’s a noun or an adjective. And it would make all the difference. If it’s truly supposed to stand for “years,” as the album was originally titled before an Internet fan suggested turning it into a terse acronym, then it’s still a forgivable conceit. It’s been two decades since Control brought bubblegum funk together with beats from west of both Detroit and Chicago in Minneapolis, creating a ghetto heaven from a sci-fi soundscape, and it’s one of the few zeitgeist albums I have no qualms celebrating arbitrary anniversaries over. Unfortunately, I fear we’re staring down an album called 20-Year-Old, which is not only a misguided move from a woman twice that age (at least Mimi sounded like a near-40 woman pretending to be 13), but also illustrates everything wrong with Janet’s new direction. (A possible third interpretation, and my personal favorite, is that it’s supposed to be read phonetically: “I’m 20, yo.”)
For starters, 20 Y.O. is the first album Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have produced (this time only in part) for Janet having moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. As a result, their ice-cold beats have 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 the album’s co-producer Jermaine Dupri (also the one who keeps Janet’s own private beats hot) 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.
Khia, for example, drops by for a cameo on the album’s second single “So Excited.” “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)” was one of the truly innovative touchstones of our era, but what’s the point of inviting the woman who once demanded “Suck it all til I shake and cum, nigga, make sure I keep bustin’ nuts, nigga” and telling her to “act bad, don’t hurt me” and to repeat the mantra “talk dirty” without actually letting her do it? 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). We’re a long way from “The Body That Loves You” here, but Jam and Lewis can’t resist trying to smooth it over for a bridge straight from the “Runaway” playbook. (I like “cute” Janet—a la “Alright,” “When I Think Of You” and “Together Again”—way more than my Slant cohort Sal, but the only thing that makes an ugly face more ugly is trying to put makeup on it.) “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. In preemptive retrospect, 20 Y.O. should’ve been Janet’s The Cookbook, not her The Cashing Of Mimi’s Reparation Checks.
But the real desperation that permeates 20 Y.O. isn’t that of a 40-ish woman cutting her age in half simply because, I guess, she also recently cut her weight in half. True, it frequently sounds as though it were the LP equivalent of a come-hither from R&B’s Miss Havisham. But I can’t imagine why we shouldn’t indulge a little age fudging from a woman who could crack walnuts on her abs. No, 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. As blogger Rich Juzwiak suggested earlier this summer when Janet leaked a cover of Debbie Deb’s “Lookout Weekend” and then yanked it (never mind that it would’ve been this album’s best track by default had it been included), there’s a discernible sense of crass capitulation in Janet’s latest career strategies. Yes, dance music in the world of pop has never seen such a nadir since well before disco. That’s why now, more than ever, I’m willing to hold out for a hero.
I don’t necessarily expect a return to the days when, having called Nuyorican Soul the best new album she’d heard back in 1997, she commissioned Masters At Work to remix “Go Deep” for her. Nor do I care to see Janet going the Madonna/ABBA route, which would surely make us all feel 40 years old. But the saddest thing about 20 Y.O. is that Janet’s decision to hedge her bets on an album whose backbone is made up of terrible R&B instead of great dance music (or even the passable club material from her last two albums—“All For You,” the tense, lopsided “You Ain’t Right,” or the underrated, bizarre “Strawberry Bounce”—which, if nothing else, would score pretty damn highly on a curve these days) will very likely pay off. According to the timeline of Slant‘s 100 Greatest Dance Songs, modern dance music itself is just barely over 30. It’s a little early to be having a mid-life crisis, isn’t it?