Happy 30th Anniversary to Janet Jackson’s third album Control, originally released February 4, 1986. [Stream album and watch videos below]
By Justin Chadwick
“I'm not saying I don't want to be a part of the Jackson family, because, of course, that's my name,” a 20 year-old Janet Jackson confided to People Magazine, back in July of 1986, a few months after the release of her seminal album Control. “But I wanted this record to be my own.”
Indeed, through her teenage years, the demure and soft-spoken youngest of nine Jackson children patiently observed—and at times participated in—her brothers’ extraordinary rise to super-stardom from the sidelines, first with The Jackson 5’s hyper-prolific 1970s heyday, followed by her brother Michael’s stratospheric solo ascent. Michael owned the first half of the 1980s, as he redefined and revolutionized the pop music landscape through his unforgettable, Quincy Jones orchestrated songs from the timeless albums Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982).
While Michael was off conquering the world with hit after hit after hit, his precocious little sister devoted her energy toward her fledgling small-screen acting career, appearing for abbreviated stints on Good Times, A Different Kind of Family,Diff’rent Strokes, and Fame through 1985. In parallel to cultivating her acting chops, Janet also quietly launched her recording career. At the behest of her father and manager Joseph Jackson, Janet secured a record deal with A&M Records in 1982 and released her self-titled debut album later that year. However, both Janet Jackson and its 1984 follow-up Dream Street failed to captivate audiences, both critically and commercially.
Despite the early career disappointments, Janet refused to lose faith. Instead, she determinedly took control of both her personal life and career, having her short-lived marriage to James DeBarge annulled and severing professional ties with her father Joseph. Around this time, she aligned more closely with John McClain, A&M’s Senior Vice President of A&R, who, in retrospect, proved instrumental in kickstarting her career, as he introduced her to the powerhouse Minneapolis Sound Machine of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Co-founders of The Time and musical colleagues of Prince, Jam & Lewis boast one of the most revered and successful production repertoires in the history of pop music, and their hitmaking services were in high demand upon meeting Janet.
Janet’s stubborn perseverance and fortuitous partnership with Jam & Lewis paid off in a huge way. Recorded in 1985 at the duo’s Flyte Time studio in Minneapolis, her masterfully crafted third album Control represented the defining moment—indeed the tipping point—of her burgeoning career and developing persona. “I think Control is timeless, because it was basically the coming out of a budding flower,” Lewis reflected during a recent conversation with Idolator. “That was when Janet found her voice. Prior to that record, people just gave her songs to sing. But on Control she really had the opportunity to figure out who she was musically and what she wanted to say. That was the beginning of everything, in terms of success.” Effectively her declaration of creative freedom and independence, Control is a fierce, self-assured and vibrant record that laid the groundwork for what has proven to be one of the most durable and dynamic pop music careers of the past thirty years.
Balancing its undeniable urban appeal with its unmistakable crossover-friendly foundations, Control is the whole package, the epitome of a pop album masterpiece. Jam & Lewis’ big, bold, and powerfully percussive soundscapes, coupled with irresistible melodies that completely envelop the senses, were innovative within the context of mid ‘80s R&B, and directly influenced the sonic blueprint of the new jack swing era that emerged a few years later. Of the album’s nine tracks, seven were released as official singles—a sure-fire testament to the album’s broad accessibility and an incredulous ratio by today’s standards, whereby the majority of albums, including the most successful ones, yield three to four singles tops.
The album kicks off with the propulsive wallop of the high-octane title track, which explores Janet’s transition from adolescence to adulthood. It’s an unequivocally empowering message of reclaiming ownership of her life that, as Jimmy Jam once explained to the BBC, “turned out to become an anthem for young women who were striking out on their own.”
Most notably evidenced on a trio of unforgettable tracks, the theme of self-empowerment pervades the entire album. A not-so-thinly-veiled message to her ex-husband, the Grammy-nominated first single “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” calls out a lazy lover who refuses to pull his share of the weight in their romance-depleted relationship. A similar biting, “I’m done taking your shit” tone is heard on the danceable “The Pleasure Principle, as Janet laments “It's true you want to build your life on guarantees / Hey, take a ride in a big yellow taxi / I'm not here to feed your insecurities / I wanted you to love me.” Featuring the notorious refrain “No, my first name ain't baby / It's Janet...Ms. Jackson if you're nasty,” the anti-chauvinism paean “Nasty” finds Janet aggressively asserting her will to repel the more patronizing elements among the male species.
Other standout moments include the ebullient, synth-horn soaked love song “When I Think of You,” which is arguably the most dancefloor-friendly track of the set. The two ballads that close the album are top-notch. The sweet, sincere serenade “Let’s Wait Awhile” extols the virtues of patience and level-headedness when it comes to matters of love and lust, with Janet committing herself to “saving more for later so that our love can be greater,” while confidently explaining in the song’s closing moments that “I promise, I’ll be worth the wait.” Sampled nearly a decade later by hip-hop duo Camp Lo for their chilled-out 1997 single “Coolie High,” the lush torch song “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” concludes the album on a smoothly subdued note. The remaining non-singles are passable-enough fare, with the buoyant groove and youthful yearning of “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive” the slightly more worthwhile listen than “You Can Be Mine.”
Nominated for Album of the Year at the 1987 Grammy Awards (Jam & Lewis won for Best Producer), the many-times multi-platinum Control solidified Janet’s musical identity and set the stage for even greater commercial and critical success, beginning with the release of Rhythm Nation 1814 three and a half years later in 1989. Whereas her brother ruled the pop music world for the first half of the ‘80s, Janet—together with Madonna—asserted her female pop star power in the decade’s latter half, providing inspiration to the next generation of pop prodigies, from Mariah Carey to Mary J. Blige to Beyoncé to Rihanna and beyond.
Four months ago, Janet released Unbreakable, her eleventh studio LP and the eighth featuring production by Jam & Lewis. The stellar album is yet another dazzling effort in an amazing career that was destined to endure, due in large part to its creator seizing Control thirty years ago and never looking back.
Notable Tracks: “Control” | “Let’s Wait Awhile” | “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” | “When I Think of You”