What She's Done for Us: The Essential Guide to Janet Jackson's Career

Janet Jackson
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Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson: pop music innovator, brilliant songwriter, genre game-changer, mother and influential legend. There are many titles the artist possesses, and she will be adding yet another prestigious one to her collection when she receives the Icon Award at the Billboard Music Awards this Sunday (May 20).

But before the triple-threat takes the stage to accept the honor, Billboard takes a deep dive into Janet’s impeccable career -- ranging from her most inspiring albums to performances that doubled as major pop culture moments. So if you're just now getting into her music, this guide will take you through all the essentials of the pop and R&B Icon’s catalogue.

The Albums

Starting point: Control, Rhythm Nation and janet.

When it comes to a proper introduction to Janet Jackson’s music, Control is the ideal place to start. It may have only been the singer’s third album, but it was the first insight into the star quality she possessed. Released in 1986, the LP showed Janet confidently embracing her artistic freedom after severing management ties with her father Joseph. The album’s music reflected this new chapter, with master production duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis helping Janet experiment with commanding proto-New Jack Swing beats (“Nasty,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately”), emotive R&B ballads (“Let’s Wait a While,” “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun”) and blissful pop jams (“When I Think of You,” “The Pleasure Principle”). Compared to her previous work, this album found Janet becoming more aggressive -- both in her vocals, and lyrics that alluded to her annulled marriage to R&B star James DeBarge. Control became the blueprint for future female singers who felt confined by the shackles of their record label and wanted to take, well, control of their musicianship.

With 1989’s Rhythm Nation, the singer quickly transitioned from pop star to icon before she even turned 25 years old. The concept album (accompanied by a longform video) is deeply rooted in social issues, ranging from racial injustice (the title track) to poverty and drug wars (“State of the World”). There was also a little romance sprinkled in with songs like “Miss You Much” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” -- two of the album’s seven top five hits on the Billboard Hot 100, a chart record that still stands today. Rhythm Nation was Janet’s mission statement, a militant call to action that proved pop music can in fact be both boldly political and digestible for a massive mainstream audience.

In contrast to the sharpness of Rhythm Nation, 1993’s janet. explored sexual freedom and all of the intricate layers of womanhood. A more feminine Janet sported loose, flowing curls on the album cover and showed off her enviable curves in the song’s videos. The music reflected this change, becoming both erotic and vulnerable, with highlights including the orgasmic (literally) ‘90s house jam “Throb” and the sensual groove “That’s The Way Love Goes,” her longest-reigning No. 1 on the Hot 100. This album was another risk for Janet, and showed women that they don’t have to be submissive -- in the bedroom or the boardroom.

Fan favorites: The Velvet Rope, Discipline

1997’s The Velvet Rope is loved by diehard Janet fans, due to the brashness of its production and its introspective look into the singer’s struggles with depression and questions of self-worth. This album had a darker, edgier tone as Janet tackled topics that were taboo to discuss, especially coming from a young Black woman. The Velvet Rope was stuffed with references to domestic abuse (“What About”), homophobia (“Free Xone”) and BDSM (“Rope Burn”). Even the album's biggest hit, the Hot 100-topping dance club anthem “Together Again,” was inspired by a friend Janet had lost to the AIDS epidemic. Its personal intensity inspired future artists (Rihanna, The Weeknd, Beyoncé, Britney Spears) to dig deeper into their flaws and transform them into art.

While it didn't gain as much success, 2008's Discipline stands as one of Janet's most underrated works to date. The singer’s 10th album was a lively experiment with various dance genres -- house, electro-pop, techno -- that was fused with Janet’s love for classic R&B. Discipline had a more refreshing flair, with Janet trading in her right-hand guys Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for younger producers and songwriters like Stargate, The-Dream, Darkchild and Ne-Yo, resulting in standout tracks like the euphoric “Rock With U” and the tender ballad “Greatest X.”

Other suggestions: All For You, Damita Jo

For more casual listeners, 2001’s All For You and 2004’s Damita Jo remain key Janet albums. All For You is a lighthearted party that smoothed the razor edges of The Velvet Rope four years prior. It had touches of “fuck you with a smile” sassiness, and found Janet trying out New Age and glam rock sounds. It’s a shame Damita Jo didn’t get the love it needed due to coming in the aftermath of the embarrassing halftime incident at Super Bowl XXXVIII, but it is an intimate record that is dripping with sex appeal. Co-production from a College Dropout-era Kanye West gave the album a soulful, sample-filled edge.

The Singles

Starting point: “Nasty,” “Control,” Rhythm Nation,” “That’s The Way Love Goes,” “Together Again,” “All For You”

“Nasty” was Janet’s 1986 sonic slap in the face to men who had sexually harassed her on the Minneapolis streets, and birthed the iconic line: “No, my first name ain't baby / It's Janet… Ms. Jackson if you're nasty.” “Control” was her funky way of taking ownership of her artistry, while “Rhythm Nation” was a bold conversation about the world’s social inequality and a plea for everyone to come together peacefully. “That’s The Way Love Goes,” from 1993, is an hypnotic ode to warm romance, The Velvet Rope’s “Together Again” was a love letter to a close friend who died from AIDS and later became a LGBTQ+ anthem, and 2001’s “All For You” is a flirtatious dancefloor staple that instantly puts a smile on your face.

Fan favorites: “When I Think of You,” “If,” “The Pleasure Principle,” “Any Time, Any Place,” “I Get Lonely,” “Rock With U,” “All Nite (Don’t Stop),” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” “No Sleeep” “Again,” “Got Til’ It’s Gone”

“When I Think Of You” and “The Pleasure Principle,” from Control, showed different facets of young and fleeting love, while ‘90s jams “Any Time, Any Place” and “I Get Lonely” had a grown-up Janet unapologetically laying out her sexual needs. “If” was a block-rocking, genre-blending banger that broke up a run of slower-paced janet. hits, while 2008’s “Rock With U” was a glittering futuristic disco jam that easily transitioned from the club to beneath the sheets.

“All Nite (Don’t Stop)” from Damita Jo served as another example of Janet’s affinity for house-inflicted beats that paired well with her breathy vocals. Rhythm Nation’s final Hot 100 topper “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” will make you want to fall in love over and over again, and the J. Cole-featuring “No Sleeep,” from her most recent LP Unbreakable, is a quiet storm that longs for a sensual reunion with a special lover. Jackson rarely does ballads like 1993’s tearful “Again” (an Oscar-nominated smash from the Janet-starring romance Poetic Justice), but it’s definitely her best. And “Got ‘til It’s Gone” is a mellow hip-hop charmer that slotted her seamlessly into the nu-soul era of the late ‘90s.

Other suggestions: “Doesn’t Really Matter,” “Someone To Call My Lover”

“Doesn’t Really Matter,” lifted from the 2000 Nutty Professor II: The Klumps soundtrack, is a poppy reminder to love someone’s inner being without being too swayed by their physical appearance. And the America-sampling “Someone To Call My Lover,” from a couple years later, is a solid, breezy pop/rock jam that holds on to hope when it comes to finding romance after a long relationship.

The Videos

Starting point: “Rhythm Nation,” “Together Again,” The Pleasure Principle,” “That’s The Way Love Goes”

“Rhythm Nation” set a huge standard for pop singers’ music videos after its release, thanks to its black-and-white military-inspired themes that highlighted Janet’s dedication to choreography that was just as intricate as her brother Michael. The lyrical themes of “Together Again” became even more hopeful with its accompanying video, which was based in a fantastical version of the African safari, as Janet mingled with the animals surrounding her. The clip for “The Pleasure Principle” remains an enduring inspiration for female artists, with acts like Britney Spears and Cassie mimicking Janet’s solo dance routine, in their own videos for 2000’s “Stronger” and 2006’s “Me & U,” respectively. And “That’s The Way Love Goes” gave us the first look into Janet’s newly realized adult femininity, where she seduced the camera with her tight figure.

Fan favorites: “What’s It Gonna Be?!,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” “I Get Lonely,” “If”

The Hype Williams-directed “What’s It Gonna Be?!” oozed with futuristic sexuality from both Janet and Busta Rhymes as they sung about wet dreams, while “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” was a more subdued display of sensuality in black + white through the eyes of renowned photographer Herb Ritts. “If” showcased Janet’s masterful dance skills as she toyed with sexual voyeurism, and “I Get Lonely” is another choreography-based video that highlighted the singer’s coveted body,” which has been oft-copied by many singers in the years since.

Other suggestions: “Scream,” “Alright”

“Alright” is one of Janet’s more theatrical videos, where she paid homage to Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘50s (how dope did she look in that zoot suit?), and “Scream” is the iconic, futuristic collaboration between the singer and her brother Michael that found the pair reaching their limits with the media prying into their personal lives. (It also went down in history as the most expensive music video of all time, with a whopping price tag of $7 million.)

The Performances

Starting point: 1990 MTV VMAs, 2001 MTV VMA Icon Award, 2009 MTV VMA Awards, 2009 AMA Awards

Janet showed everyone how an opening awards show performance is done with her controversial rock star rendition of “Black Cat” at the 1990 MTV VMAs, where she shocked the audience by ripping her shirt open to expose a black bra. You could almost hear the world’s mouths drop in awe once Janet emerged onto the stage at the same awards in 2009, where she honored her late brother (who had died the previous June) with an emotional performance of their “Scream" duet.

She kept the tribute going during her 2009 AMAs performance, with a powerful medley filled with hits like “Control” and “Make Me,” before dedicating “Together Again” to Michael. And we cannot forget her showstopping performance at the 2001 MTV VMAs, where she received the Icon Award.

Fan favorites: “Would You Mind” live in Hawaii (2002), 1993 MTV VMAs, 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards

Janet’s love for erotica transcended on stage, and a lucky fan got the experience of a lifetime when the singer gave him a lapdance to “Would You Mind” while on tour in Hawaii. The poor guy couldn’t control himself once Janet expertly straddled him, and fans couldn’t keep their eyes off the pair. The singer’s “That's the Way Love Goes / If” mashup at the 1993 MTV VMAs was all about Janet’s appreciation for dance, and her harrowing, tear-stricken rendition of “What About” at the 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards was unforgettable.

Other suggestions: 2004 Super Bowl halftime, 1990 MTV VMAs, 1987 Grammys

Janet was criticized to no end following the controversial Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime performance, but many forgot how incredible she was on stage before the “Nipplegate” incident, as she amped up the crowd with classics like “All For You” and “Rhythm Nation.” A few decades prior, the singer took control of the stage with a fiery "What Have You Done for Me Lately"/"Nasty" performance at the 1987 Grammys.