This Sunday, May 20, Janet Jackson will receive the Icon Award at this year’s Billboard Music Awards. It’s a fitting honor for a triple threat who’s navigated the terrains of a constantly changing music industry for generations, and whose music seems just as relevant today as it was 20 or 30 years ago.
For more than four decades, the youngest sibling of the Jackson family has taught valuable lessons with her art: How to reinvent one’s sound and image in order to push music forward; the importance of sexual liberation as a woman; and how to draw attention to societal taboos and timely matters and prove conversation, without compromising one’s ability to make everyone dance and sing along.
In our current decade, Ms. Janet-If-Your-Nasty’s soft-spoken candor and astute attention to detail while performing has inspired a legion of entertainers. Here are 10 songs from the master class of Janet Jackson acolytes, which most closely resemble (or most obviously borrow a few techniques from) the icon’s classic singles and deep cuts — ultimately producing next-generation gems for today’s pop and R&B audiences.
Although she’s heralded as one of pop’s most important figures today, Janet Jackson didn’t receive her mainstream breakthrough until the release of her third studio album, Control. On the nine-track LP, Jackson has a coming of age while entering her twenties — resulting in her taking what the title suggests in regards to her love life, image, and musical career.
One 21st Century pupil who is often compared to the icon — as she often explores these motifs throughout her own discography — is Tinashe, who in many ways is still seeking her mainstream equivalent to Control. The closest Tinashe’s arrived to such a feat would arguably be her major label debut, Aquarius. That album’s sixth track, “How Many Times,” directly samples the slow-winding instrumental of Jackson’s Control highlight “Funny,” while its chorus — inquiring “how many times can we make love in one night?” — replicates the same stop-and-go vocal structure, with a breathy sensuality to make Ms. Jackson proud.
“Let’s Wait Awhile” (1986) / Brandy’s “No Such Thing As Too Late” (2012)
Throughout her career, Jackson has offered late-nite R&B radio (otherwise known as “quiet storm”) some of its greatest classics: Control’s “Let’s Wait Awhile” being at the forefront. Despite the song’s sensual tone and the singer’s mezzo soprano delivery, its dawdling pace reflects a central message of sexual abstinence, Janet promising she’ll “be worth the wait.” On her album Two Eleven, Brandy follows that same idea by suggesting to her mate — over a similarly lite, breezy groove — to let their love grow before taking it to the next level.
“Rhythm Nation” (1989) / Beyoncé’s “Formation” (2016)
While debates are still boiling over about whose the better entertainer between Beyoncé or Michael Jackson, there’s the added factor of the former’s adoration for the latter’s sister. In 2014, Bey emulated her idol for Halloween, dressing up in Jackson’s iconic “Rhythm Nation” costume — even sporting the signature key earring.
Two years later, she’d release a politically empowering anthem for black women across America, with a critically acclaimed music video, also consisting of militant choreography and era-defining visuals. Similar to how “Rhythm Nation” was a part of a longer film project focusing on social justice and racial harmony, “Formation” would be a groundbreaking segment of Bey’s Lemonade visual album.
As he expands his artistry — now delving into film soundtracks — it’s becoming more apparent that Kendrick Lamar is making good on his ambitions to become the Tupac Shakur of his generation. The earliest indicator of this trajectory exists on his sophomore LP, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City — with some assistance from his commercial foil, Drake. Named after the Maya Angelou-inspired ’90s romance film, starring 2Pac and Jackson, “Poetic Justice” recreates a love story over a bed of the plush instrumental of Janet’s classic slow jam “Any Time, Any Place,” as well as a sample of Janet’s “in the thundering raiiiiiiin…” coo from the song’s verse.
“If” (1993) / FKA twigs’s “Two Weeks” (2014)
In the 90s, Jackson started elevating her pop&B sound sonically by infusing more genre experimentation. She’d also introduce a sexually liberated attitude with her first LP from that decade, simply titled janet. “If” became one of that era’s staples, for both its industrial rock and trip-hop undertones, and for a music video displaying advanced choreography and technology.
More than a decade later, FKA twigs echoed a similar sentiment, fantasizing about the most “high” climaxes she could hypothetically take her friend if he allowed, over a dense production that draws from a variety of genre influences. Similar to the color-tinted visuals of “If,” twigs commands center stage amongst background dancers in the songs’ visual, the cinematography drawing viewers deeper into her underground lair.
“Again” (1993) / Kehlani’s “Escape” (2017)
Kehlani, in many ways, has become the new generation’s torchbearer for ’90s R&B, as her debut LP, SweetSexySavage, forayed into that territory with a modern twist. She taps into her “sweet” side on “Escape,” a sentimental ballad driven by an acoustic guitar and angelic crooning. Although Kehlani’s deep cut was never released as a Billboard Hot 100 topping, Oscar-nominated single like “Again,” its chorus similarly reflects on strong feelings for an old friend, with piano underscoring the song’s one-word title in the hook.
“Twenty Foreplay” (1996) / Ciara’s “Speechless” (2010)
One key component to Jackson’s longevity is her collaborations with songwriting and producing duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They are the masterminds of “Twenty Foreplay” — a ballad on one of the singer’s many greatest hits compilations.
The-Dream and Tricky Stewart should be deemed the 21st century’s answer to Jam and Lewis, as they played a large part in reinvigorating the careers of contemporary stars like Rihanna, Britney Spears, and Ciara. On the latter’s “Speechless,” The-Dream can be heard proclaiming “Trick we did it again,” before Ciara proceeds to express her “need [of] an extra hour on the clock” to show gratitude towards her soulmate.
“Free Xone” (1997) / Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”(2011)
Throughout the decades, Jackson found herself on equal footing with fellow planetary pop star Madonna, often trading musical influences with one another. On Velvet Rope cut “Free Xone,” the former takes a page from Madonna’s “Justify My Love,” as she’s speak-singing over a deep house beat. “Free Xone” was groundbreaking for promoting same sex relationships — causing a bit of controversy in the process. Lady Gaga’s declaration of “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M” on “Born This Way” would constitute the same dynamic, while also musically calling back to Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”
Velvet Rope was not only noteworthy for establishing the precedent for a pop diva addressing their place in society at large, but for setting the standard of moody alt-R&B LPs drenched in sexual confidence — as best demonstrated by the album’s impossibly seductive third single, “I Get Lonely.” Kelly Rowland was so inspired by the R&B gem, its video’s choreography, and Jackson’s outfit, that she delivered one of the BET Awards’ most titillating moments while performing her electro-hopping slow jam “Motivation,” dressed and dancing like Janet from the “Lonely” video.
“All For You” (2000)/ Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry” (2018)
At the turn of the new millennium, Jackson added a new dimension to Y2K dance-pop by fusing elements of lighthearted disco into her trademark R&B sound. “All For You” became a bubbly No. 1 hit on the Hot 100, with a music video featuring the singer dancing and having fun in an imaginative city. For Ariana Grande, she’d also embrace those more cheerful vibes with a disco sway on her most recent pop&B top 10 hit “No Tears Left To Cry,” released following the tragic attacks outside her 2017 concert in Manchester, England. Feeling an urge to “pick up” the pieces after tragedy, Grande dances in a fairytale world resembling Manchester, bringing a shining light of hope to today’s pop, and to her upcoming fourth album.