Album Review

Janet Jackson's 'Control' at 30: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review

Janet Jackson
 Bill Lovelace/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Janet Jackson 

Before she could tackle the world’s problems and play utopian visionary on 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson had to handle her own business. She did so with Control, the career-making declaration of independence she released 35 years ago, on Feb. 4, 1986.

Control was the culmination of a series of very wise decisions that must have taken a lot of guts. In the mid-‘80s, Janet was a TV actress (Diff’rentStrokes, Fame, Good Times) who also made middling pop records. Her father, Joe, had overseen her first two albums, Janet Jackson (1982) and Dream Street (1984), and given the success he’d achieved with her older brothers, there was pressure to let him continue running the show.

Only Janet didn't want to play by her family’s rules, so she fired her father as manager and hired A&M exec John McClain. In the lead-up to Janet’s third LP, McClain suggested she fly to Minneapolis, of all places, and try her luck with a couple of former Prince associates. The trip paid off in a big way.

Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had been playing together since high school -- before Prince tapped them for his offshoot band The Time -- and by the mid-‘80s, they’d developed a hard-edged, synth-driven pop sound that looked back to vintage funk while anticipating the ubiquity of hip-hop. Rather than write a bunch of songs before their new client arrived, Jam and Lewis waited to hang with Jackson and get a sense of who she was and where she was headed.

Before long, with Janet contributing to the writing, female-empowerment jams like “Control” and “Nasty” began to take shape. For the first time, the baby of the Jackson family wasn’t just singing whatever was put in front of her. She was collaborating with similarly hungry artists on songs that spoke to her situation and pushed pop and R&B in exciting new directions. With the help of Jam and Lewis, Janet was reinventing herself and proving that Michael wasn’t the only Jackson able to shape popular culture.

It took a few months, but Control blew up, topping the Billboard 200 and spawning six top 20 singles. Five of those landed inside the top 5, and one, “When I Think Of You,” reached No. 1. The album also earned four Grammy nominations, including album of the year. It didn’t take the top prize -- Paul Simon’s Graceland won -- but Jam and Lewis walked away with well-deserved producer of the year honors.

Had Jackson not rocked black combat gear and gone all topical on Rhythm Nation -- another Jam and Lewis production that generated a bunch of smash hits with super-memorable videos -- Control might stand as Janet’s best-loved ‘80s album. Instead, it’s often seen as a precursor to the real coming-out party -- an interpretation that makes sense, given that only four of these nine tracks really fit with the “new Janet” storyline.

Regardless of how it’s ranked, Control is a fantastic album that represents way more than what’s spelled out in the lyrics. Even with on lighter tracks like “When I Think Of You,” what comes across is a 20-year-old woman learning to trust her instincts and enjoy herself on her own terms. There’s a lot of attitude on these tracks -- and a lot of laughter, too. Read on for our track-by-track review.

“Control”: Summing up the album in sound and concept, “Control” is a mission statement with a song built around it. “This is a story about control,” Janet says in the intro. “My control.” After speaking those words with the calm conviction of someone who’s given the matter a lot of thought, Janet follows Jam and Lewis through five-plus minutes of weird rhythmic twists and turns. At times, the rubbery bass recalls her brother Michael’s “Thriller,” while the flirty percussion and old-school Minneapolis synths keep the track from sounding like a lecture.

“Nasty”: Second most immortal line on Control: “Gimme a beat.” That’s the intro to this aggressive proto-new jack swing takedown of lecherous dudes. The song was inspired by a gang of creeps who catcalled Janet one day while she was on her way to the studio. Most iconic line on Control: “My first name ain’t baby / It’s Janet / Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.”  The way she says it, you know she’s down for a little nastiness, provided it’s on her terms.

“What Have You Done For Me Lately”: The album’s leadoff single was a late addition, and if Jam and Lewis had it their way, it might not have made the record at all. They were compelled by the label to offer up the tune, which they’d been saving for their own record, and for obvious reasons, Janet grabbed it. With its awesomely assured lyrics, driving beat, jabbing synth riff, and surprisingly sunny bridge, the tune was sure to resonate with anyone who’d been taken for granted.

“You Can Be Mine”: One of only two tracks not released as singles, this wad of funky bubblegum has the feel of a Prince track -- though he’d have laid down much gnarlier guitar solos. On first listen, Janet sounds sweeter and less defensive than she does on the previous three songs, but she’s still calling the shots. “You can be mine,” she says. “If you’re good.

“The Pleasure Principle”: Penned and produced by original Time keyboardist Monte Morris, this terrific synth-funk breakup note has the precision and elegance of a mathematical proof. Why is Janet leaving? “It’s the pleasure principle,” she tells her insecure soon-to-be-ex. If he doesn’t know what that means, he’d better look it up -- Janet’s too busy hailing a cab to draw him a diagram.

“When I Think Of You”: Never underestimate the power of a gushing love song. While the public was ready to ride with Janet on her self-empowerment trip, it was this this ebullient pop tune that out-charted all other Control singles and became her first No. 1. With its driving programmed thud, lively orchestra hits, funky guitar, and strawberry daiquiri vocals, “When I Think Of You” is Janet showing that even strong women go head over heels.

“He Doesn’t Even Know I’m Alive”: Written by Jam and Lewis compadre Spencer Barnard, this fluffy dance tune about a shy girl chickening out on her crush’s doorstep is a fine song that's all wrong for this record. Lyrically, it’s about the growing pains of a teenager, not a 20-year-old emancipating herself from her screwed-up family, and musically, it lacks the aggressiveness of the other tracks. Barnard should’ve saved it for Debbie Gibson or something.

“Let’s Wait a While”: According to Jam, this ballad wasn’t meant to send a message about abstinence. It’s about taking things slowly and letting love grow naturally, and to his point, Janet sings it like a truehearted lover, not a person with an agenda. And yet in the context of the other tracks, not to mention the AIDS epidemic, “Let’s Wait Awhile” takes on that extra meaning. Janet is taking charge of her art and finances -- why wouldn’t that extend to her body?

“Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)”: Previewing the sensual side she’d explore more fruitfully with “That’s the Way Love Goes,” Jackson conjures up a quiet storm with this Sade-grade sheet-ruffler. When she gets to the chorus, singing the eight-word title phrase with mid-coital breathiness, the instrumentation wraps around her like a silk robe. There’s even some moaning and French pillow talk -- more reminders that being in control doesn’t make you cold.