At least Janet Jackson does admit to being a little confused here, too. The most frustrating aspect of 20 Y.O. is trying to figure out the reason why it exists in the first place. Is it meant to be a summation of the past 20 years of work? Is it merely marking a place in time 20 years after Janet Jackson became a pop music superstar? Is it just Janet playing around in the studio and figuring she might as well sell some records while she's at it?
Nothing to Say and Just Having Fun
In the spoken word opening to 20 Y.O., Janet Jackson informs us that there's something to be said about not saying anything and that she wants to keep it light, not be serious, and have fun. On the surface that seems fine, but a point about her own music she seems to miss is that she taught the pop music world that being serious could also be a tremendous amount of fun. A significant part of the success of Rhythm Nation 1814 was that it was simultaneously one of the most fun, exciting, and serious concept albums ever unleashed. Janet Jackson is not Paris Hilton, Cassie, or Danity Kane, and it would be unfortunate indeed if their style of fluffy, fun, but ultimately disposable, music is her aspiration.
Updated But Empty Sound
Jermaine Dupri's hip hop production flourishes, and hitmaker Johnta Austin's songwriting skills update Janet Jackson's sound to fit comfortably alongside mainstream contemporary urban sounds. Unfortunately, most of 20 Y.O. fails to take those updates anywhere unique to Janet Jackson. Rarely has Jackson's music sounded so faceless. A track like "Get It Out Me" would be a strong track on an album by a lesser artist, but with its atmospheric synth sweeps, precision vocal whispers, and lyrics like "It's you, it's something that you do / Ain't nobody has been able to / Get it out me," it sounds like she's merely trying to keep up with younger artists.
Top Tracks from 20 Y.O.
- So Excited
- With U
- Call On Me
Where Does Janet Jackson Go From Here?
20 Y.O. doesn't feel like a summation of Janet Jackson's past triumphs since she attempts to incorporate a contemporary feel with few references to the past. However, it is unsuccessful in truly taking her confidently in a different direction the way that Control announced the arrival of a mature artist. Unfortunately, it feels most like a return to the vapid, faceless, pop-soul she was recording before Control except with a contemporary sheen.
Janet Jackson admits to confusion here ("I don't know"), and she says she just wants to have fun, but that is not a good reason to package new music and sell it to fans. Music fans deserve to hear the real work of an artist not idle play in the studio. The glories of Jackson's past work indicate direction and the hard work of an artist. Let's hope to hear it once again in the future.