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The Velvet Rope: how Janet Jackson inspired a whole generation

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  ‘The songs are monuments to self-discovery’ ... Jackson at the album launch party in 1997. Photograph: Matt Baron/BEI/Rex/Shutterstock

Twenty years on, this richly experimental and deeply personal album is still the template for pop rebels

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 record-breaking $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-turned-Olympic 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.”

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