Still In Control: What Janet Jackson's return means for R&B music

  /  09.17.2018

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

—by Rashad D. Grove

For more than 35 years, Janet Jackson has been one of the most popular, recognizable, and successful artists in mainstream music. Without question, she is a pop culture icon of the highest order with endless accolades as an acclaimed singer, songwriter, actress, dancer, and performer. She’s sold over 160 million records; is the first and only artist in history to produce seven Top 5 hits from one album (see: the classic Rhythm Nation 1814); and after taking time off to give birth to her son Eissa and grieve the passing of her father Joe Jackson, she’s now returned to the global stage to announce that she’s still, well, in control.

And 2018 is shaping up to be quite a memorable year for the re-emergence of Janet. She’s been receiving honor upon honor for her transcendence—with the BMI R&B/Hip-Hop Icon Award, the Billboard Icon Award, and the Rock Star Award at ‘Black Girls Rock’—and is currently touring as part of an extension of her State of the World Tour. It appears that after some years of seemingly being underappreciated, possibly due to her infamous #nipplegate controversy at the 2004 Super Bowl (and CBS CEO Les Moonves’ alleged blacklisting of her because of it), Ms. Jackson (if you’re nasty) is finally being recognized for her influence in music. Jackson is never one to live purely from her past accomplishments alone, so she’s back creating new music. But what does the return of Janet Jackson mean for R&B?

The landscape of contemporary R&B has received a much-needed injection of new energy in the last few years. Although hip-hop music still dominates the culture and charts, there has been a reemergence of R&B, alternative and otherwise. With the rise of diverse singer-songwriters including Janelle Monáe, SZA, Ella Mae, Sevyn Streeter, Daniel Caesar, Kehlani, Jhené Aiko, Khalid and others, the R&B scene is exploding with bold musicality from a variety of distinct voices. (Before them, Jackson’s legacy was seen and felt in the visuals and on the records of Beyoncé’, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Ciara, and so many others.) And this environment is perfect for the reintroduction of Ms. Jackson to the masses. Her unmistakable style of sexy R&B fluidity fits right in with the current scene. Her usage of infectious hooks accompanied with synth funk dance tracks that speak of love lost, romance, explorations of sexuality, and women’s empowerment are the resounding themes of R&B music today.

She could build upon the current contemporary R&B sound (that she undoubtedly helped to inspire) while incorporating modern musical motifs of the moment, but she doesn’t arrive to jump on the bandwagon or follow the latest trends. She tends to re-enter the music scene to push the genre to new heights with her versatile brand that defies all labels. She brings a familiarity as one of greatest entertainers of all time, but with an undeniable, brand new vigor, a creative impulse that reestablishes her as a mainstay of R&B. Her return demonstrates that Jackson continues to produce barrier-breaking R&B music for new audiences.

She also returns as head of her own label, Rhythm Nation Records. Last month, it was announced—by Jackson herself, her brother and business partner Randy, Cinq Music chairman Jason Peterson, and Cinq president/co-founder Barry Daffurn—that Rhythm Nation Records would partner with the independent, data-driven distributor, publisher, and label for a recording and distribution agreement, inclusive of her new Daddy Yankee-assisted single, “Made for Now,” and her forthcoming album. (She will also be releasing additional songs and videos through the year via the partnership.)

Jackson’s choice of Cinq highlights just how much the music industry has evolved in recent years and how she plans the keep her pulse on the culture. It also underscores the fact that she understands that in today’s music scene, ownership is crucial. For one to really be in control, they must have investment in how their music is presented and sold to the public. With streaming as the primary mode that music is consumed, Jackson is perfectly situated to take advantage of her independence as an artist and as a Black woman in a male-dominated industry. As head of her own label, Jackson again creates a template for other R&B artists to follow as she takes her destiny in her own hands.

Additionally, launching her new music alongside a Latin superstar highlights the current wave in the music market. With the Afro-Latino feel of “Made For Now,” she’s infusing R&B with an international vibe. She’s always known that her version of R&B is meant for the world.

The timing for a new Janet Jackson project couldn’t be better. It means, quite literally, that one of the progenitors of the current sound of popular music has returned to elevate the genre to another level. And, after 35 years, several are still trying to catch up with her. But she’s offered to them a formula to extending the lifespan of an R&B artist’s career by constantly reinventing herself and embracing new styles of music. By no means is it her intention to take a victory lap; Jackson’s return means that she’s here to move the dial.

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