Rhythm Nation 1814, by Janet Jackson
After the smash success of Control, where Janet Jackson made her statement of intentions about her career, Rhythm Nation 1814 marks a considerable increase of artistic ambition in making a concept album full of interludes that seeks to promote a nation that eschews racial division in the common appreciation and enjoyment of R&B music like that created by Janet and other musicians of like mind. In our atmosphere of toxic racial conflict, it is somewhat nostalgic to reflect on a time where prominent musicians encouraged people to break down the boundaries of background that divide us rather than use them as the basis for one’s politics and behavior, and this approach likely harmed the state of R&B music in general. But enough about such unpleasant matters? How does this album stack up more than thirty years after it was made? Is it as good as an album as it was popular at the time? Let’s find out.
This album begins with an interlude that moves into Rhythm Nation, a statement of purpose in making the United States as a whole into a nation that would appreciate R&B music, a sentiment that was carried out in this album. Another interlude then leads into State Of The World, a somewhat serious song about the social problems of isolation, homelessness, hunger, mental illness and other problems that call out for a solution and that are as bad or worse now than they were then. Another interlude about education precedes “The Knowledge,” which marks a direct continuation of the previous album’s theme, pointing out that knowledge and growth are necessary for self-control. Another interlude than precedes “Miss You Much,” which expresses Janet Jackson’s customary concern about intimacy and distance. Another interlude then leads into “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” which contains a pleasing and worthwhile message about loyalty to a relationship and making things work. “Living In A World (They Didn’t Make)” is a call to properly protect children from the hate and violence that fills the world and the results of mistakes made by adults, which again hits hard in our age where such things are even worse than they were in the late 80’s. “Alright” then has an upbeat approach to an enjoyment of a relationship. Another short interlude then transitions into “Escapade,” a beautiful and catchy song about escaping the troubles of the world through travel. “Black Cat” is a stellar example of Janet Jackson as a rock artist, something I would like to have seen more of. “Lonely” is a call to a friend to reach out when one feels lonely and that she will be there as a friend to comfort and encourage. “Come Back To Me” is a call for renewed intimacy, while “Someday Is Tonight” is a sweet love song about making one’s dreams come true now that is similar to the closing song on “Control.” The album ends with an interlude that calls on people not to let their eyes deceive them based on superficial externalities.
This album is unquestionably a classic, and one that is particularly poignant when listening to it looking back on its realistic but optimistic vision. If the production of the album seems very much of its time, the material on this really is timeless with its vision of a race-blind society that appreciates music and values friendship, love, and education and is concerned about the well-being of those who are vulnerable outsiders. Janet Jackson was sensitive to these issues in the late 80’s, and all of the issues she talks about are even more serious and intractable problems today. While the songs on here are beautiful and the production is rather angular and even a bit industrial sounding, the album as a whole concept is even more poignant than it was because Jackson provided a call for a better future and a better world than we had. Sadly, we chose another, darker, way. This album still remains, though, as a classic which points to a moment when things could have gone differently had we so chosen to do so.