If Janet Jackson made much ado of janet. being the Let’s Get It On to Rhythm Nation’s What’s Going On, then 1997’s The Velvet Rope is clearly her I Want You, respectively Jackson’s and Gaye’s best and least-heralded albums. (Both incidentally recognized at the end of their creators’ respective marriages.) The chief difference between The Velvet Rope, the least “perfect” album of Janet’s increasingly careful career and the one that most threatens to collapse at each turn, and all the albums that Janet has released since is that all the subsequent albums have been cheery, forcedly carefree collections of would-be singles without any cohesiveness behind them; they’re kiddie cocktails by someone old enough to know better. The reason none of them sound particularly convincing—like Jane Adams’s Joy from Happiness gamely grinning “I’m doing good” seconds before peeling into miserable, anti-cathartic tears—is because of The Velvet Rope, an album by a still very inexperienced person attempting to convey maturity and worldliness.
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-fuelled aphorisms of the follow-ups, nor is it more politically intriguing than her advocacy of color-blindness in Rhythm Nation. The bisexuality of her cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” never manages to convince that Miss Jackson has ever been so nasty as to even consider loosening pretty French gowns. “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 (literally, in the concert tour performance of “You”), Janet’s probably never been more cagey.
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, maybe even their last excepting Jordan Knight’s “Give It to You”) 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.