Janet Jackson's latest album claims that she's (musically? spiritually? mentally?) 20-years-old, but the funny thing is that she doesn't sound a day over 10. Janet has apparently decided that her pop tenure has bought her the right to a prepubescent sense of frivolity. Like every Janet album since 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814, 20 Y.O. starts with scene-setting babbling: "There's something to be said for not saying anything...I've talked about a lot of things, what do I talk about this time? I've covered a lot in my 20 years. And I've uncovered a lot in my 20 years [zing!]. But I want to keep it light, I don't want to be serious. I want to have fun."
The fun rolls out in a three-song suite that, since we're being juvenile, reminds me of a scolding my literary hero Ramona was once given by her father (via her grandmother): "First time is funny. Second time is silly. Third time's a spanking." (Except proud-bottom Janet might like the latter too much.) The point is the fun of "So Excited," "Show Me" and "Get It Out Me" comes at a cost – there are dollar signs behind Janet's smile. Fun doubles as a bid for relevance in today's R&B because it's propelled Jermaine Dupri's trusty 808 drum machine. There's a static dynamic in the increasingly dire trio -- monochromatic melodies are shrouded by metallic beats. It's hard to pay attention to little else than tsking snares, sub-bass that lets out a doofy "Duh" and clapping that might as well be from the hands of Janet's legion of unquestioning fans, what with the low-end thrust forward the way it is. It's sort of like when an amazing ass is in your face and for a while, it's the only body part that exists. This is R. Crumb & B.
It's not that you can really blame Janet for getting behind the 808 – the brutally simplistic time-keeping click-pound has taken over as the sound of now, in what can only be a response to the spacey and unreliable skitters of and inspired by Timbaland that ruled before. And it's not even that "So Excited," "Show Me," and "Get It Out Me" are unpleasant, per se – they're just more business savvy than musical (Dupri usually shows more of a mastery of blending the two into pop), and nothing ages you like desperation. Of the three, "Get It Out Me" verges on crude – it's yet another retread of Afrika Bambaaata and the Soul Sonic Force's "Looking for the Perfect Beat." Could someone please buy Dupri an Egyptian Lover album so that he'd have a new electro source to gank? (That said, "Get It Out Me" could spawn a wonderful video – picture it: Janet dances from doctor to doctor in search of the one who can remove this horribly stubborn splinter lodged in her ass.)
That three-song stretch isn't the last you hear of the 808 – it also cracks through "Call On Me," which in the context of the album, reveals its brazen mediocrity that I never wanted to admit was there. But it's that same drum machine, under the sole control of Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Janet, that makes "Daybreak" as delightful as it is. Without it, "Daybreak" would be unbearably treacly, what with its sneaking-out theme ("I'm like a lil kid," says Janet in the no-shit statement of the album) and series of "Escapade" chimes that bleed into each other like a cavalcade of ice-cream trucks going around Janet's head as she's nestled in bed (is there anyone else in pop music who'd think to work the melody of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" into a track, much less, get away with it?). Even better is "With U," a ballad in which the 808 finally does exactly what it's supposed to and merely puts Janet on an even playing field with her competition. In another time, the beats would be quieter (mimicking finger-snapping like in "Let's Wait Awhile," for example), but it doesn't matter because what comes through are indelible melody, Janet's trademark multi-ply vocal layers and, most importantly, her sweetness ("Baby it's forever and I really mean to / Make you feel as special as I see you, baby"). This summer, when the only track we'd heard from 20 Y.O. was "Call On Me," I'd hoped that Janet could come back with something along the lines of the "'We Belong Together' of dance tracks." That she didn't doesn't matter – this is the "We Belong Together" of now.
If "With U" and "Call On Me" were swapped on the track list, the last half of 20 Y.O. would comprise the most consistent 5-song stretch that Janet's ever committed to record. "With U," "Daybreak," the steppy "Enjoy" (her most disco moment since "Together Again" or maybe even "Young Love," which was released back when she was, y'know, -4), "Take Care" and "Love 2 Love" are assured enough to make you forget that Janet's working off the biggest slump of her musical career. These songs simply glow. "Take Care" is as structurally brilliant as anything she's done – it's a baby-making track a la "Funny How Time Flies"/"Lonely"/"Anytime, Anyplace"/"Anything"/"Would You Mind"/"Warmth" but without the stuffy, sometimes dull rigidity of those songs. "Take Care" dozes in and out of choruses and verses so that it's hard to tell what's what, and most spectacularly, hits a bridge at only the 1:30 point. It's like it's too good not to climax early. "Love 2 Love," meanwhile, is the most forward-thinking torch song to grace R&B since Aaliyah's "I Care 4 U," with its Homogenic beats, breathlessly shifting synths and that bizarre, single bar in the second verse that breaks into live drumming. Both of these tracks are focused on sex, but neither are over-the-top. I don't mind Janet being as smutty as she wants to be, but you know, after you've simulated (?) singing with a cock in your mouth, where else is there to go?
These tracks wisely and consciously scale back and thus, are in conversation with what came before them in Janet's career. This kind of dialog with the past was the aim for the entire album, but as a response to Janet's previous work, it falls short (a few interludes that sample Janet's catalog aren't enough to achieve this end during the album's inferior first half). But if it doesn't quite enrich what we know of the past, what mean to today's R&B? Not very much, either, really – Janet's always had a way of recognizing trends (as Tim Finney sharply pointed out recently on ILM, "it's rarely acknowledged that The Velvet Rope featured perhaps the first non-Timbaland tracks to start jocking the late 90s R&B sound in a major way"), while fostering a brand that's all her own. She's been making the same album (at least in structure) since janet., and so, if you like her, the Janetism (giggle, giggle!)-filled 20 Y.O. comes off as a variation on a theme. If you don't, it's repetition of the most indulgent sort (repetition as self-celebration as a lack of ideas). Is she getting older or better? Split in half as it is, the only answer that makes sense is: a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B.
[This review was inspired in part by a conversation with Bill, who knows more about Janet than I ever will. Also, here is where I found the lovely and subtle Crumb shot.]
This probably should have been posted yesterday as a reminder to expect the same deal as with the ProjRun recaps. No idea what's going to happen during the four weeks in which there will be new episodes of ANTMandProjRun. We'll see.
In other news, I was so wrong about about Brooke. She's a firecracker!
Some things that annoy me about FutureSex/LoveSounds
The meaningless title - I don't care about the lack of spaces. I don't even care that strung together, these words make less sense than a post-Ooohhhhhhh...On the TLC Tip Left Eye rap (check your vernacular!). What drives me crazy is what these words imply, specifically the "future"/"sounds" part. I don't demand innovation, I love shitty pop music for what it is, but I also hate pretension. If you're going to be as bold as to advertise your album as being of the future, it better knock my space socks off. FutureSex/LoveSounds does sound like the future...as it was in 2001. It's a little sad that Timbaland's production no longer makes you feel like you're alternately suspended and zooming through a time far, far away -- it's very said that this album title pretends that it does. His beats have the forward-thinking lopsidedness that they have for the past 10 years (not that I don't love it love it baby, love it baby, love it baby tsk tsk stutter). Bass lines zap like they're out of boogie tracks that are 25 years old. Guitars lurch like they're from disco songs that are even older. But Timbaland also throws back to himself -- "SexyBack" stomps like the pseudo-house of "4 My People" that Tim produced with Missy for 2001's Miss E...So Addictive. "My Love" contains the giggling of a synthetic baby, much like Tim's 1999 production for Aaliyah "Are You That Somebody." Maybe even more blatant: the tracks' tongue-clucked percussion fills are virtually identical (here is the one from "Somebody"; here is the one from "Love"). When the admittedly lovely "Until the End of Time" isn't ripping off Prince's 1984 Purple Rain anthem "The Beautiful Ones" (backwards drum sound and all), it sounds not so suspiciously like Missy's "Take Away" (also from Addictive). Check the intros: "Take Away" "Until the End of Time." Dig the harps? I'm almost willing to forgive the last one, though -- "Take Away" wasn't the hit that it should have been when it was released as a single, maybe because it was too out-there for it to be something people could listen to while getting their fuck on. "Time" is already getting airplay, and it's a no-brainer of a single that can make right the unjust reception of "Take Away." Sometimes the future needs some time to catch up with itself.
The pussy-ass way he drops the "u" in "fuckers" in "SexyBack" - He does it not once but twice. If you're gonna go for it, go for it. There's no thug appeal in singing like an asterisk is lodged in your throat.
He refers to himself as "Daddy" in the title track, and yet he often sings as though his balls haven't yet dropped - And this is the major problem that I have with Timberlake -- his persona is all over the place. Sometimes, he's a seasoned letch in a club, talking to a "little girl" (that'd be the title track, as well) and sometimes he's a twinky school boy facing a bout of "SummerLove." He's seemingly obsessed with the notion of commitment (in "My Love" and "What Goes Around" rings and names are ready to be passed out, respectively; "Until the End of Time" speaks for itself), but he's also bent on convincing us that he's a player (in "Sexy Ladies," he sings girls all over town who are willing to wait on him or dance with him or dance to his music, and punctuates the boast with "Now it might sound cocky / But is it really cocky if you know that it's true"). And there you go -- when he steps out of the life that we know from the tabloids, the guy in a very public committed relationship, he's only out to brag (and I have one word any time anyone goes out of their way to say, "Be impressed by me!": "No." They usually don't like that.). Don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly demanding that everyone live what they sing about. Even though Timberlake went out of his way to court fame and form a public identity, it's understandable given the glare of the paparazzi's cameras (those flashing lights) that he'd want to seek refuge in his art (he says in a recent Rolling Stone cover story that he FS/LS lyrics "are not autobiographical in any way"). But this is problematic, too, for if Timberlake doesn't have truth or a solid persona to offer, what exactly does his pop art have going for it? He doesn't have a singular, unique perspective that he's willing to share (he's more than happy to pander to bridge-and-tunnel triteness in his lyrics, per that Rolling Stone interview: "I don't really think I'm bringing sexy back. But when a twenty-eight-year-old male or female is standing in a club in New York City at 2:30 in the morning, I want them to feel like they are. That's what music should do."). And though he works within the soul tradition where (at the risk of sounding like a record that's both skipping and cracking in that oh-so vintage way) how you say is more important than what you say, his voice is too limited to be impressive and too slick to transcend the banality of his lyrics. He is then, practically an incidental component of his music.
Maybe the most annoying seven seconds committed to tape this year - Ya think ya ready, but you aren't. (Seriously, he sounds like the hitchhiker in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Oh but for a mention of head cheese. That'd be a great look for his persona!)
"Losing My Way" - This falls somewhat under the persona umbrella but it's so excruciatingly irritating that it warrants its own bullet point. "Losing My Way" is a message song in which Timberlake plays "Bob," a crack addict whose addiction has ripped through his life and estranged him from his family. "Can anybody out there hear me? / 'Cause I can't seem to hear myself," sings Timberlake as Bob. But more to the point, he's singing of himself -- by actually saying these words, Timberlake is answering Bob's question in the affirmative, for it is he who can hear Bob's message (for how could he relay Bob's message if he couldn't hear it?). The song is an instant pat on the back -- Justin singles himself out as one of the few who cares about the tired, poor, huddled masses. Someone get this self-righteous bitch a torch. Justin has exhibited this Hollywood sympathy, this willingness to take a stance only if it's self serving, outside of music as well. In a Z100 interview last week, he admitted that he handled the 2004 Superbowl incident improperly, that he could have taken more of a stance to support Janet instead of letting the blame fall on her (I didn't actually hear that interview, but here is a clip of the DJ relaying this message to Janet, who appeared on Z100 just hours later). He also apparently bled his heart dry by hypothesizing that Janet bore the brunt because she's a woman and a minority. This goes beyond Timberlake's normal slickness and into sliminess: it's a very convenient stance to take, oh, two and a half years later when he's promoting his fucking record. The incident is now far away that everyone can collectively look back on how silly the entire ordeal was and sigh over the nice, white boy and his adorable amends.
So yeah, that's what I don't like. Ultimately, I think I'm maybe just predisposed to disliking Timberlake. But you know, I tried -- I've spent plenty of time with the record and, in fact, there are a few things that I do like about it:
It's just dumb fun - Really, for as many gripes as I have, broad and specific, I have to admit that it's not a chore to listen to this record. I don't think that it's exactly the club album that people seem to think it is (it's mostly midtempo), but there is a sort of breeziness that makes it at least akin to dance music. It's dance music for the soul. The tired, poor, huddled, not-so-particular soul, but still.
"My Love" - The falsetto? Painful. The Timbaland self-references (in addition to those listed above, the segmented, staccato motion of this song makes it an overall ringer for "Cry Me a River")? Shameless. And yet, there's a zoomy giddiness that's infectious. Chasing the cat, he sounds like a pussy. Appropriate!
"LoveStoned/I Think That She Knows" (All seven and a half minutes of it) - One of Timbaland's best tricks on the album is his building the songs into suites -- melodic, rhythmic and lyrical ideas are snatched from songs and twisted into intros and conclusions that shift the tone (or, as the intro to "Until the End of Time" purports, "Set the Mood")."LoveStoned" starts as a beatboxed run through a club, peppy but unremarkable. At around the 4:30 mark, the disco strings begin full-on mourn mode and all of the programmed production gives way to a droning guitar and live drums. Emotion kicks in and the flashing lights of the club that held Timberlake's object of desire now become something different -- something to lament, as flashing lights are when you're superstar. For a second, Timberlake's fun dumbness has depth. There's more to him than what he shares and here's the nudge. Here's the irresistible wink. He is kinda cute, after all.
Kayne isn't a bitch, he just plays one on TV. And here, I thought he couldn't help but perpetuate the stereotype of the bitchy queen! I think pretending to be one is a wonderful way to win friends and influence people.
I know she's being goofy, but I really thinks she wants us to believe that she's just a regular old girl who shops at the 99 Cent Store. How dumb does she think her viewers are?
And yeah, my renewed interest in Tyra directly correlates to the premiere of ANTM. Yay. Double yay: no Project Runway next week. Seriously, I didn't know how I was going to handle 2 hours of skinny bitches on top of 1 hour of snippy (hee!) bitches (and that's in addition to, you know actual work, which generally revolves around plain old bitches). I actually don't know what I'm going to do for the ProjRun/ANTM overlap that's going to occur from Sept. 27 - Oct. 18. That's four episodes. I think I might sneeze my brain out. Or maybe my fingers will fall off. Stay tuned!
I didn't want to, but after about three solid listens (and many more since), I fell madly in love with B'Day. Believe me, I think Beyoncé has been overpraised for years (that she's pretty much the ruling diva of this generation, or at least of her age group, really bothers me since her voice is merely good and her fame is bolstered by her multi-hyphenate/ADHD sensibility). I can't help joining the chorus this time -- B'Day is a tight, short album that doesn't overstay its welcome or try to be something it isn't. Beyoncé is not above utterly contemporary pop, and B'Day knows it. There is true beauty in knowing one's place. There is truer beauty in talking to your own vagina. Let's go, little kitty kats.
I could go on and on (fun fact: B'Day skirts the theory on diva albums I laid out in my review of Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics -- it's a concept album and even more, the very concept [songs Bey's Dreamgirls character Deena should have said] allows it to side-step the faux-confessing characteristic of the modern diva). A 1,500+ word essay on B'Day, however, would betray the album's brilliantly simplistic spirit. Instead, I'm offering a what-if scenario that combines a new favorite (that'd be Bey) with an old -- Lucio Fulci's opus of zombies and popped eyeballs, the 1981 trashterpiece, The Beyond.
Gorehounds and sappy-ballad lovers, alike, I give you...
(Note that the screenshots after the jump, while not as disgusting as they could be given the source, are nonetheless occasionally graphic. Also, let the page load completely before viewing. The gifs are on a loop, which may result in confusion. Have no fear: each one's starting point involves Bey sashaying into the frame. All Beyoncé shots are via BeyonceWorld.net. Check out the B'Day promo shoot because it's fucking hilarious, even without being superimposed on Fulci's frames.)