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For many years, there has been a select group of albums that have not only helped define artists’ careers, but culture as a whole. In the realm of R&B, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is on that short list and recognized as one of the most distinct musical releases in history.
As a member of the Jackson clan, Janet was considered music royalty upon her entrance into entertainment, but wouldn’t truly find her footing until the release of her third studio album, Control, in 1986. Featuring production by Minneapolis-bred duo Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the album helped usher in the new jack swing era, while thrusting the star into bonafide stardom.
Three years after multi-platinum success of the project, the artist looked to prove herself as more than just an artist, but a visionary with her fourth studio album, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Released on September 19, 1989, Rhythm Nation peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for four consecutive weeks. It was the best selling album of 1990, one of the most decorated album of all-time, and it established Jackson as a dance and style icon — not to mention one of the biggest musical artists on the planet.
With thirty years having passed since the release of this landmark album, REVOLT highlights five reasons Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 is an undisputed classic, and one of the most influential and pivotal bodies of work of its time.
1. The Message
Presenting herself as a feisty man-eater on Control, Jackson looked to add a bit more depth to her material as part of her evolution as a creative. This desire manifested itself in her decision to take a conceptual approach in curating the content and songwriting on Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Arriving at the tail-end of the Reaganomics era, the album addressed a number of societal issues including poverty, drug addiction and racial discrimination; which set it a part from other seismic releases from female entertainers of the era. Jackson’s focus on balancing out radio-friendly hits with socially conscious material is a trend that is all too familiar today. But, the release of Rhythm Nation was ahead of its time.
2. The Production
Following the massive success of Control, the album’s chief producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, were pushed into stardom and considered by many to be among the elite hit-makers in R&B. So, when it came time to craft the songs for Jackson’s follow-up record, the pressure to meet expectations was at a crescendo. However, the duo returned to the drawing board with a vengeance, revamping their in-house studio, Flyte Tyme, with updated equipment including synthesizers, keyboards and drum machines. Among these new additions were the E-mu SP-1200 and Oberheim OB-8 analog synthesizer, with the sole holdover from the Control recording sessions being the Ensoniq Mirage keyboard. These new tools would be used to craft the sonic template for the album, which Jackson helped co-produce in its entirety. Taking elements from industrial music, new jack swing, hard rock, pop, dance and other genres, the trio returned with a fresh sound that would dominate the charts through the ‘90s.
3. The Singles
Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 was a cohesive effort with masterful sequencing that is still praised three decades later. However, the album was powered by a succession of singles, all but one of which peaked within the Top 5 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, making Rhythm Nation the first album in history to achieve that feat. Jackson’s exuberant chart-topping smash “Miss You Much,” the militaristic sound of the title track; and infectious ballads like “Escapade,” “Come Back to Me,” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” were all inescapable at one point or another during three consecutive calendar years. This is a testament to the album’s excellence and staying power.
4. The Visuals
With a background in acting under her belt, Jackson’s music videos on Control were full of personality, with the singer exuding a charismatic charm that proved irresistible. However, her approach in pairing the music on her Rhythm Nation 1814 album with captivating visuals proved to be even more ambitious, as Jackson creating a thirty-minute short film that aired on MTV in anticipation of the album’s release. Directed by Dominic Sena, the plot was set around a pair of teens, whose musical aspirations are derailed by drugs and a life of crime, and are used as a cautionary tale while Jackson and her Rhythm Nation soldiers attempt to steer others on to a more positive path. Incorporating various choreographed dance routines, the Rhythm Nation 1814 film was paramount in stamping Jackson as a legend. In addition to the movie, she shot music videos for five other songs on the album including “Alright” and “Escapade,” which both included heavy choreography, as well as “Come Back to Me” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” which presented more intimate vibes.
5. The Tour
Many of the most iconic albums of the past few decades have inspired blockbuster world tours, but in terms of women making grand statements on the biggest of stages, Jackson proved to be in a class of her own. Upon embarking on the “Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990,” the star and her team pulled out all of the stops by incorporating live musicians, back-up singers and dancers for what critics would hail as one of the most innovative tours of its time. With production and staging reportedly costing upwards of $2 million, the tour was a spectacle for all to see and foreshadowed ambitious tour runs from future icons like Rihanna and Beyonce. With an attendance of over two million, the “Rhythm Nation World Tour 1990” was the most successful debut concert tour in history and would stamp Jackson as one of the premier live performers ever.