There was a brief moment in the late 1980s when producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were unsure whether they’d be involved in the follow-up to Janet Jackson‘s multiplatinum breakthrough album Control. It’s an outcome that seems unthinkable today — and one that could very well have changed the trajectory of pop music as we know it.
Released 30 years ago on Sept. 19, 1989, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is the only album in history to spawn seven top five singles on the Billboard Hot 100. But while pop has always been a singles-driven genre, Rhythm Nation also helped revitalize the concept album, which — with a few exceptions, like Marvin Gaye’s similarly themed What’s Going On — had largely been the province of rock auteurs.
“I remember people coming to me and saying we should do a record called Control II,” Jam told Billboard. The impulse to try to recreate the success of that album, which yielded five consecutive top five singles on the Hot 100, was understandable. With Control, Jam and Lewis had helped personalize Jackson’s music, but with Rhythm Nation, they set their gaze outward.
“It was a crazy time,” Jam recalled. “The Reagan years were ending. There were school shootings. There were all these unbelievable things starting to happen.” And so Jackson, Jam and Lewis channeled the carnage they witnessed on TV every day into songs like “State of the World,” “The Knowledge,” and, of course, the title track, which became one of the singer’s most iconic hits.
The theme of social justice permeated every aspect of the album’s creation. An ABC News special titled Black In White America, which aired just weeks before Rhythm Nation was released, inspired the use of black and white in the album’s artwork and videos, including a 30-minute short film of the same name and subsequent world tour.
Though the ’80s are known for fostering a culture of indifference, Rhythm Nation possesses a wide-eyed idealism that would be impossible today. It’s something Jackson herself acknowledged on “Shoulda Known Better,” a song from her 2014 album Unbreakable: “I had this great epiphany/And rhythm nation was the dream/I guess next time I’ll know better.”
As a body of work, Rhythm Nation is often considered in its entirety, but to celebrate the album’s 30th anniversary, we decided to break down its individual parts, most of which are no less impressive on their own merits. We’ve ranked each of the album’s 12 tracks below, with the exception of its eight interludes.
12. “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)”
On an album mercifully short on sentimentalism, this poignant piano ballad turns up the schmaltz with lyrics in the key of “We Are the World,” a faux news report about gang violence, and, of course, a children’s choir. Inspired by a school shooting before such events became an almost daily occurrence, Jam and Lewis’ hearts were in the right place, but it’s Rhythm Nation’s sole misstep — which, frankly, is an achievement.
11. “Someday Is Tonight”
A quasi-sequel to Jackson’s abstinence anthem “Let’s Wait Awhile,” Rhythm Nation‘s closing track finds the singer hanging up her military fatigues and surrendering to desire. Punctuated by finger snaps and dripping water effects, “Someday Is Tonight” previewed the sex-drenched balladry Jackson, Jam and Lewis would go on to perfect with hits like 1993’s “Any Time, Any Place” and 1997’s “I Get Lonely”; here, it serves as a reminder that revolutionaries need love, too.
10. “State of the World”
If Rhythm Nation‘s title track describes utopia via multiculturalism, “State of the World” is, per its title, a dose of realism. Jackson describes a litany of social ills, from hunger and homelessness to crime and drug abuse, all set to a grinding new-jack bassline. The track’s aggressive, sharp edges — crashing trashcan lids, breaking glass and wailing voices — made it an unlikely radio hit, but it nonetheless peaked at No. 5 the Radio Songs chart. Had it been eligible for the Hot 100, the song may have even extended the album’s unrivaled string of top five singles.
The third single (and second No. 1 hit) lifted from Rhythm Nation is a feel-good dance song that finds Jackson name-checking the Minneapolis sound pioneered by Prince and The Time, of which Jam and Lewis were previously members. A clear descendant of 1986’s “When I Think of You,” “Escapade” lacks that song’s indelible keyboards and bassline, but what it forgoes in funk, it makes up for in sleek effervescence emblematic of the era.
Jackson’s assurances to a despondent friend are juxtaposed with quiet storm flourishes like acoustic guitar and yawning horns, making this smooth slow jam quite possibly the sexiest song about loneliness in pop history. A&M Records could have easily dropped “Lonely” as the album’s ninth single and watched it climb late-night R&B playlists across the country.
7. “Black Cat”
Though her personal life served as the inspiration for most of Control, Jackson really cut her teeth as a songwriter on Rhythm Nation, co-writing half of the songs; she’s credited as the sole composer on the guitar-driven “Black Cat.” The campy pop-rock track is simple but charmingly primal — and, with its screeching electric guitars and Jackson’s metal-queen delivery, very much a product of its time. An amped-up radio mix featured live drums and an extended guitar solo, but the single defied genre boundaries, hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100 and even cracking the top 10 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
6. “Miss You Much”
The lead single from Rhythm Nation was a bit of a bait-and-switch, a heaping spoonful of empty calories that, in the context of the album proper, couldn’t be enjoyed until after listeners had taken their medicine. In a throwback to Control, Jam and Lewis deployed their signature Mirage sampler for the icy synths that open the track, which can also be heard prominently on “Escapade.” Like that track, “Miss You Much” owes as much to bubblegum pop as it does new jack swing, with Jackson coyly spelling out her feelings in typical ’80s fashion: “M-I-S-S you much.” The single spent a month at No. 1 in the fall of 1989.
5. “The Knowledge”
If the first two-thirds of the album’s opening trifecta diagnose a problem (“State of the World”) and propose a goal (“Rhythm Nation”), “The Knowledge” presents the solution: education reform. It’s not exactly a sexy topic for the dance floor, but when this clattering, industrial treatise ends and Ms. Jackson says, “Get the point? Good, let’s dance,” you do what you’re told.
4. “Come Back to Me”
“I wish I could sing like Whitney [Houston],” Jackson can be heard lamenting during a recently leaked vocal session for the ballad “Come Back to Me.” Regardless, Jackson is often able to convey a significant amount of emotion with her voice. The song’s arrangement does a lot of the heavy lifting too, from those signature finger snaps, marking the seconds of Jackson’s abandonment, to the track’s cinematic live strings. It was Jackson, in fact, who urged Jam and Lewis to add an orchestra to the song, the omission of which would be like watching a Bette Davis melodrama without a Max Steiner score. “Come Back to Me” hit No. 1 for three weeks on the Adult Contemporary chart, while it stalled at No. 2 on the Hot 100, behind Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love.”
Based around a collage of samples including Lyn Collins’s 1972 single “Think (About It),” the top five hit “Alright” is an unrelenting rush of new-jack joy that found Jam and Lewis employing looped sound effects, pitched-up (and down) vocals, and, of course, Jackson’s stacked harmonies to dazzling effect. A whopping three decades later, the track’s intricate sound design — including a nearly three-minute instrumental outro — still continues to reveal new dimensions.
2. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”
Though “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” was originally conceived as a duet (with their old boss, Prince, no less), Jam and Lewis opted to keep Jackson’s low register vocal on the finished track, with the singer effortlessly leaping an octave during the second verse. The duo truly understood how to harness Jackson’s vocals to maximum effect: The song’s climax of overlapping four-part harmonies and lead vocal runs turns what could have been an average midtempo bop into a euphoric declaration of love. The track became the fourth No. 1 and record-breaking seventh top five single from Rhythm Nation — and did so nearly a year and a half after the album’s release.
1. “Rhythm Nation”
Rhythm Nation‘s titular manifesto opens with an inventory of reference points, including Jackson’s own top five hit “Nasty” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” which, according to Jam, was the germ that inspired the track. The towering wall of sound that follows feels impenetrable; Jam and Lewis’ hard, staccato beats are militant and regimented, firing like artillery alongside Jackson’s full-bodied call for unity. Thematically and sonically, it was a formula big brother Michael would spend the next decade trying to replicate, and it’s hard to imagine Beyoncé’s “Formation” existing without it. “Rhythm Nation” just missed the top of the Hot 100, held at bay by Phil Collins’ similarly woke “Another Day in Paradise.” But it takes the pole position on this list.