Remembering 'Control' 30 Years Later: How Janet Jackson's Third Album Cemented Her Icon Status

Janet Jackson
Bill Lovelace/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Janet Jackson photographed in 1987. 

Be it a regrettable tattoo or choosing a college, your first “adult” decision is momentous. It’s a declaration of independence; a here-and-now expression of your identity, but more importantly, an assertion of who you want to be moving forward. For Janet Jackson, this moment came 30 years ago with the release of her third album Control.

In hindsight, Control is both evolutionary and revolutionary. As Jackson’s first album to land atop the Billboard 200, it marked professional and personal breakthroughs. Distancing herself from the immense Jackson family shadow, she created one of the most influential projects across contemporary R&B and pop music. And not only was Jackson’s maiden voyage with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at the forefront of R&B, pop and hip-hop’s intersection, it birthed a novel sound in the process. Above all, Control represented Jackson becoming a star by embracing and announcing her womanhood.

Janet Jackson Earns Historic Seventh No. 1 Album on Billboard 200 Chart

Despite being her third album, Control was the beginning of Janet Jackson, the icon. Prior to that, she was best known for portraying other people on sitcoms Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes, and the television adaptation of musical drama, Fame. Her foray into music was done at the behest of imperious stage father Joe Jackson. “I didn't want to do [the first record, Janet Jackson],” she told The Boston Globe in 1997. “I wanted to go to college. But I did it for my father.” And her father ensured that Jackson made the type of music that he wanted her to make. 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street were juvenile and largely forgettable because they lacked any discernable identity. Safe and nondescript, the albums were what a domineering patriarch would feel comfortable hearing from his teenage daughter. But with Jackson on the verge of adulthood, she was forced to seek independence -- musical and otherwise -- outside of the family.

Some artist-producer tandems collaborate on sublime levels; Michael Jackson’s work with the legendary Quincy Jones, for example. It’s with Control that Janet Jackson began her pioneering relationship with Jam and Lewis. After Prince discharged the duo from the Morris Day-led outfit The Time, they began perfecting the “Minneapolis sound” -- a funky integration of rock, pop, and new wave that’s accented by extraterrestrial synths. Control presented the chance to establish something original for Jackson because her previous albums provided such a flimsy frame of reference.

“With Control, we got an opportunity to make a whole album with her, without scrutiny, because no one was saying, ‘I can't wait for the new Janet record,’” Jam told The Chicago Tribune last fall. This allowed both sides to start with a clean slate. Jackson moved to Minneapolis to work on the album, absorbing Jam and Lewis’ sound at their Flyte Tyme Studios. Assuming a larger creative role than ever before, she split co-writer and producer credits with the pair, helping to dictate arrangements and instrumentation all while branding Control with a personality the world was previously unaware existed. 

Jackson was somewhat of a curated enigma at the time. Her identity was largely shaped by her family’s image, a situation she sought to correct at Control’s onset. The album is front-loaded with more assertive songs by design -- Jackson wanted to reintroduce herself as a confident, capable young woman. “It’s all about control, and I’ve got lots of it,” she proclaims just before Jam and Lewis’ glitzy slide arrives on the title track. After demanding a beat, she confronts street harassment on the melodically industrial New Jack Swing primer “Nasty.” Lead single “What Have You Done for Me Lately” is a thinly-veiled kiss off to ex-husband James DeBarge, whom Jackson married on impulse and swiftly divorced the year before. Even seminal dance record “Pleasure Principle” is about her grabbing personal matters by the horns and steering them to beneficial outcomes.

Yet because Jackson was just three months shy of 20, there’s still an exuberance to Control. “When I Think of You” is all Saturday morning eagerness; “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive” all bashful sparkle. The latter marks a progression from crushes names being scribbled affectionately in notebooks to the innocence of “Let’s Wait Awhile” (which, despite the difference in tone, is just as feminist as “Nasty”) before ending with Jackson’s moans amidst the quiet storm sensuality of “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).” This was the full spectrum of thoughts and feelings consuming a young woman as she matured.

If Jackson’s marriage to DeBarge is viewed as a post-high school act of rebellion, Control and the years immediately following its release were her collegiate experience. The album itself was the inception of her adulthood; a college-age Jackson choosing a major. Growing up is a process, and Control was the beginning of a natural one that aligned with Jackson’s ascent up the ranks of greatness. All of the transcendent pop stars, Jackson included, have maintained their longevity by reinventing themselves through the years. They’re vampires. Control was the first time she did this, and, as with everyone, Jackson’s identity was modified over time. Every version of Janet Jackson, especially from Control to 2001’s All for You, has been vastly different. She now exerts enough power to disappear for years, then tour and release new music like last year’s Unbreakable upon returning. It’s no coincidence that Unbreakable was her strongest output it in years: it was her reunion with Jam and Lewis, who she hadn’t worked with since 2006’s 20 Y.O., a celebration of her career arc since Control’s debut.

On one hand, Control’s impact can be measured through accolades. It’s sold upwards of 14 million records; seven of its nine songs infiltrated airwaves; six were top 20 hits and five cracked the top five. It even earned Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis a Grammy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical. But on the other, influence best quantifies its importance. Beyoncé similarly fired her father, Mathew Knowles, as her manager ahead of releasing her best work, and newer artists like Tinashe have co-opted elements of Control -- from the music to Jackson’s aura during that era. Tinashe, like Ciara before her, is a stylistic disciple of Jackson, and Control opened the door for both Beyoncé and Rihanna to amass and wield the authority they hold.

Janet Jackson's 10 No. 1 Hits Ranked

To this day, Control is about liberation. It’s the moment Janet Jackson stopped being Michael’s little sister and began the path to a catalog rivaling his. It’s when she established her own legacy as opposed to living up to her family’s.