25 years ago, Janet Jackson released her most complex album to date. The Velvet Rope isn’t just a catchy pop album, it’s an honest, raw ride full of pleasure and pain and pure soul. 1997 will go down as arguably one of the greatest album release years ever for artists across the board, and Janet was emotionally swinging for the fences on her sixth studio release.
At this point in her career, Jackson had already asserted her independence from her family dynasty of stardom and elegantly maneuvered sexual expression in front of a global audience. Janet was at the apex of her popularity: by ’97, she’s negotiated the largest recording contract in history, starred in one of the most expensive music videos ever produced (“Scream”), and received an Academy Award nomination in 1994 for the song “Again,” from the film Poetic Justice, which she co-starred in with Tupac.
Today, Jackson’s influence is apparent everywhere, from Billie Eilish to SZA. Now, we’re used to hearing blunt confessional lyrics about the intricacies of intimacy, and the tragedies of growing into adulthood — Janet and her Velvet Rope are the blueprint. Everyone, young and old, owes it to themselves to revisit this classic.
For people of a certain age, a lot of good music memories are edgy, a little dangerous, and a little inappropriate. The Vevlet Rope came from the era of parents really worrying about the “parental guidance” sticker. It’s a dangerously sexy album. And even though today it might seem tame by today’s standards, it was very ahead of its time.
While Janet put her sexuality at the forefront of her previous album, janet, this album brought her honesty to the forefront — as well as, of course, her ability to get freaky. On The Velvet Rope, she demanded her audience mature with her to the next level as she explored then-revolutionary subjects like radical acceptance of free and open love. There’s something for everyone on this album, like how she linked up with Q-Tip (and won a Grammy for) the “Got ’Til It’s Gone” music video, using one of the most familiar samples in modern hip hop. Or how she made the jaw harp cool on “Go Deep.” How about the jam worthy of Prince for “Free Xone”, or how she scored her 18th consecutive Billboard top-ten hit with “I Get Lonely”?
The album is also just sexy. Most famously on the world tour for the album, Janet Jackson selected an audience member to tease with a lap dance, a move consistently revived by pop stars from Britney Spears to Normani. But a lap dance pales is a stunt. In her lyrics, you could hear it all. From her erotic impulses, singing “Whisperin’ I wanna feel a soft rope burn,” to her sensual vulnerability when she sings “I’m scared to fall in love, afraid to love so fast, cuz every time I fall in love it seems to never last,” and “I fell asleep late last night crying like a newborn child, pretending my arms were yours.”
In life, and in pop music, being honest is tough, but Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope normalized raw honesty in a way that no other pop album had before. The pop world of the 2020s — full of fiercely independent female stars — owes something to Jackson and The Velvet Rope. This is an album for all generations and Janet Jackson’s legacy proves she’s easily the most talented member of her family.