Breezing past a table of talking suits, Janet Jackson makes her way to the not-entirely-private backroom of New York’s Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar, with her chef, Cheo, in tow.
On this brisk January afternoon, a charcoal gray peacoat keeps Janet Jackson cozy and black thigh-high Yves Saint Laurent platform boots keep her chic. As is her custom, she has slimmed down quite stunningly (and rapidly) in time for the release of her 10th studio disc, “Discipline,” her first project since defecting to Island Def Jam (IDJ) from Virgin last summer.
“I think a comeback is when you leave and then you . . . come back,” Jackson says. “People are always quick to use that word ‘comeback,’ but I never went anywhere, really.”
Arriving Feb. 26, “Discipline,” Jackson insists, does not put her in the same camp as Mary J. Blige or Mariah Carey— it’s not her “Breakthrough,” nor her “Emancipation.” But given the commercially disappointing sales of her preceding Virgin sets—2004’s “Damita Jo” moved 999,000 units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 2006’s “20 Y.O.” stalled at 648,000—there was a vanishing act of sorts that warrants all the comeback talk.
“There’s a great anticipation for the record,” says IDJ chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who executive-produced “Discipline” with Jackson. “I feel that there’s a welcoming from people in general, whether it be in the radio community or in the media. We would be wrong not to note that there’s a different level of excitement going on with Janet right now.”
The excitement comes courtesy of her new Rodney Jerkins-produced lead single, “Feedback.” After a round of underwhelming singles from her past two albums, the song has been gaining momentum at urban and pop formats, thanks to its robotic bassline and voice-modulated effect tailor-made for the clubs. It debuts this week at No. 37 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs chart with 44,000 downloads and at No. 57 on the Billboard Hot 100.
If “Feedback” breaks into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, it will be Jackson’s first such hit in that region of the chart since 2001’s “Someone to Call My Lover” peaked at No. 3.
Heavier on dance tracks than seductive jams (Jackson’s other forte), “Discipline” is classic Janet. The title track is one of her typical frisky bedroom cuts, featuring lyrics like, “I need some discipline tonight/I’ve been very bad” and “Daddy, make me cry.”
In addition to production by Jackson’s longtime boyfriend Jermaine Dupri, Island’s head of urban music, “Discipline” also features tracks by newcomers the-Dream and Tricky Stewart (“Umbrella,” “Bed”), Lil Jon, Stargate and songwriters Ne-Yo and Johnta Austin.
With “Discipline,” the aim was to innovate without totally reinventing the wheel. “There’s so much that I’ve done, from ‘Black Cat’ to ‘I Get Lonely’ to ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’ to ‘Together Again.’ I have never stuck to one style of music ever,” Jackson says. “There are some things that maybe I’ll try for right now and some things I’ll wait later on to try. It’s [about] sticking to who I am. Even lyrically, something that I’ve experienced or someone that I know has experienced, it has to relate to my life and myself.”
Starting her musical career at age 16, Jackson released her first five albums through A&M, including her self-titled 1982 debut and her 1986 breakthrough “Control,” on which she first started collaborating with Jam and Lewis. But it wasn’t until 1989’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” that multiplatinum sales started becoming a norm. For 1993’s “janet.,” which has sold more than 7 million copies, Jackson relocated to Virgin and revealed a sexier image, with more sensual music to boot. The reinvention yielded her most successful single, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which topped the Hot 100 for eight straight weeks. Subsequent albums “The Velvet Rope” and “All for You” each sold more than 3 million units.
While Jackson’s record sales have gradually declined through the years, the most drastic dip occurred in the aftermath of her infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. This is, of course, another hurdle—perhaps the hurdle—from which Jackson has been struggling to recover.
Though the incident is a bygone, it is still the elephant in every room she enters. Its aftershocks were felt not only in the FCC’s crackdown on censorship, but also in her album sales.
Jo” was largely overshadowed by the Super Bowl fiasco. Back when Dupri was president of urban music at the label, he’d expressed sentiments of nonsupport from the label, which was part of the reason he left once the dust of “20 Y.O.” had settled. According to him, the label felt it was the music that was the barrier. “It was described to me that the music wasn’t appropriate and that’s what was making these outlets or certain places that usually would support her not willing to play the record,” Dupri says. “I know better than that. In the music business, you at least get a shot.”
But sources close to “20 Y.O.” note that since Dupri was president of Virgin’s urban department at the time of the album’s release, he controlled virtually every aspect of the marketing and promotion of the project. (Virgin did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)
Regardless, in February 2007, when Dupri was appointed to head IDJ’s urban music department, Jackson followed close behind. But while Dupri and Reid worked together on “Discipline,” Dupri, who executive-produced “Damita Jo” and “20 Y.O.,” willingly loosened the reins this time around, although he ended up producing all the vocals for the album.
“It’s a crazy role for me, because I want the right things for her as my girl. I also want the right things for her as a label, but I also am the label president,” Dupri says. “So, I had to kind of let this be L.A.’s situation, because there’s so many different ways I could get caught up in this project. I also wanted her to feel the love from a real record company and a whole bunch of people other than myself giving her the yeses, so I kind of stood back so she could get a vibe of what she used to have when she first signed to Virgin.”
Two years ago, Dupri masterminded Mariah Carey’s comeback effort, “The Emancipation of Mimi.” With Jackson, a similar opportunity presents itself.
Def Jam COO Steve Bartels thinks the key is to reinvigorate Jackson’s fan base through an arsenal of diverse urban and crossover records rather than targeting one lane. “Her appeal was to everybody when she was at her height, and I think that the people out there still want that from her,” Bartels says. “On the last few albums, something had changed.”
I never put pressure on myself,” Jackson adds. “It’s just, to me, about going in the studio, having fun, enjoy what you’re doing and do it to the best of your ability. You have to be happy with the work that you do.”