Mature and experimental… Possibly the great lost 90s trip-hop album, in parts.
Daryl Easlea 2010-08-03
Rather unloved and forgotten in the 21st century, Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope is a mature, experimental album. Written after dealing with her depression, it explores her psyche and sexuality. Producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis here continue to emphasise their importance to dance music, taking Jackson down a darker path than previous releases. Vanessa Mae’s prog-rock violin solos on the title-track sets the tone for this deeply spiritual and slightly strange work. It was Jackson’s first new material since 1993’s janet., after the triumphant interlude of her first greatest hits collection, Design of a Decade, in 1995.
Sexuality and codes of conduct are blurred in Jackson’s lyrics, and the inter-song skits find her breathy and needy. It’s no surprise that it resembles Erotica by Madonna at times, in subject manner and style. Free Xone has taken several leaves from Madonna’s book – dispassionate monologues in between an indiscriminate set of beats.
Five singles were lifted from the album. Together Again is a thumping great hit, an old-fashioned piece of professional dance music, played perfectly. There’s the sleek, slippery Go Deep and the fabulous single Got Til It’s Gone with Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell, which sounded as modern as you could be in 1997. Every Time is a touching piano ballad.
It’s far too long. It does feel like you’ve given over a considerable chunk of your life to it by its end, an unfortunate by-product of the CD era with its overriding desire to fill up every last second of each disc. However, now everything is listened to in bite-sized chunks, one can revel in its invention, especially the almost Pink Floyd’s The Wall-like chanting on Empty, weaved into the skittering Art of Noise-esque rhythm track. If more stoners were into commercial soul, they would be listening to this instead of Dark Side of the Moon.
So, is this trip-hop? When people reflect on the down-tempo albums of the 90s, few people would mention The Velvet Rope among the numbers. Yet, in part, it holds a US mirror up to the UK dance scene that infiltrated the American market, replaying the dense groove of Massive Attack. “There’s nothing more depressing than having everything and still feeling sad. You must learn to water your spiritual garden,” Jackson says at the end of this wistful album. It is certainly one worth reinvestigating.