Vel­vet gold­mine

Twenty years on, Janet Jack­son’s The Vel­vet Rope is still the tem­plate for pop rebels

The Guardian - The Guide - - Music - Michael Cragg

Turn­ing 20 this week, The Vel­vet Rope’s in­flu­ence still re­ver­ber­ates across the pop and R&B land­scapes. Janet Jack­son’s sixth al­bum is there in the frank sex­ual ex­pres­sion and raw hon­esty of Rihanna’s Anti, or the spa­cious navel-gaz­ing of so-called alt-R&B acts such as Kelela and Blood Orange. Tellingly, it has also be­come a point of ref­er­ence when­ever a ma­tur­ing pop star – from Bey­oncé to Christina Aguil­era – un­leashes a darker, more con­fes­sional com­ing-of-age al­bum, usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by some self-con­sciously min­i­mal art­work (The Vel­vet Rope’s cover was in stark con­trast to 1993’s breast-cup­ping Janet).

Richly ex­per­i­men­tal and deeply per­sonal, it was a bold com­mer­cial move, re­leased just as Jack­son ce­mented her sta­tus as the big­gest mu­sic star on the planet by sign­ing a record­break­ing $80m deal with Vir­gin. So why has it en­dured? First and fore­most, the mu­si­cal scope, as­sisted by reg­u­lar pro­duc­ers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, is vast and ev­er­green. Lead sin­gle Got ’Til It’s Gone, which sam­ples Joni Mitchell, ref­er­ences J Dilla and the then-nascent neo-soul genre that now fu­els the likes of SZA; US No 1 To­gether Again (about friends lost to Aids) is Spo­tify-ready feather-light dance-pop; the fu­ture-soul of Empty – which pre­dicts the lone­li­ness of dat­ing apps – of­fers dis­torted trip-hop; while What About en­cases lyrics about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in waves of crunch­ing gui­tars. There are also the var­i­ous shades and moods that go with a 22-track al­bum, show­cas­ing what life­long fan How to Dress Well, AKA Tom Krell, refers to as the al­bum’s “reck­less­ness with genre con­ven­tions and re­stric­tions”. For pop star MNEK it cov­ers “the full hu­man con­di­tion. The whole thing bares a sad­ness but still a joy.” Not many al­bums utilise a Tubu­lar Bells sam­ple next to a solo from vi­o­lin­ist-turnedO­lympic skier Vanessa Mae.

At its core, too, is the en­dur­ing rel­e­vancy of its sub­ject mat­ter. Writ­ten fol­low­ing a se­vere bout of de­pres­sion – “I’ve been bury­ing pain my whole life,” she told Ebony at the time – the songs are ther­apy-es­que mon­u­ments to self-dis­cov­ery (very 2017), book­ended by sen­sual self-ex­plo­ration (Rope Burn) and, on the cover of Rod Ste­wart’s Tonight’s the Night, the sug­ges­tion of bi­sex­u­al­ity. The jazz-tinged Free Xone, mean­while, tack­les ho­mo­pho­bia. “It felt in­cred­i­bly per­sonal, like I was div­ing into some­one’s cre­ative process,” says lo-fi pop prac­ti­tioner Shura of the first time she heard the al­bum. “I love the idea that a fear­less record like The Vel­vet Rope has in­spired artists and al­bums that are so vastly dif­fer­ent.”

Rope and glory The un­der­stated cover art­work for The Vel­vet Rope al­bum

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