Top of the Pops: Rhythm Nation 1814

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August 7, 2015 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Starting off with a militant call to arms, Rhythm Nation 1814 begins by revealing its intention of not only grooving but improving as well.  On Rhythm Nation, Janet Jackson goes from being Michael Jackson’s little sister to being her own woman.  It’s an album that like Jackson is equal parts smart, sexy, and socially conscious.  In this sense, Rhythm Nation captures the attitudes brewing at the turn of the decade from the 80s to the 90s.  The album possess a socially conscious message of reform and equality reminiscent of the 80s at its most naïve and starry-eyed, but it spreads this message in a very in-your-face and aggressive way, indicative of a very early 90s attitude.  On Rhythm Nation, it’s not enough for Janet to simply state what’s wrong with the world, instead, on the title track, one of the standouts on the album, she demands social, political, and economic justice.

Unlike her previous works, Rhythm Nation 1814 is a concept album…or at the very least, it tries to be.  Its failure to actually sustain and adhere to the concept of social injustices and racial inequality proves to be the albums biggest drawback.  The album is divided into three parts where the first third deals with injustices and inequalities, this is where the album derives its socially conscious soul from, and why Rhythm Nation is remembered as a concept album…even though it really isn’t.  The middle section of the album, and also the strongest segment, concerns itself with unrelated pop songs such as “Love Will Never Do” and “Miss You Much”.  The final third of the album is made up of four ballads that needlessly stretch the album out and further adds to the pacing problems caused by the unforgivable amount of interludes.

Rhythm Nation kicks off with the eponymous track that acts as a mission statement for what Jackson seeks to accomplish on the album.  Although she loses sight of this mission about 20 minutes into the album, “Rhythm Nation” proves to be the coolest track on the album.  On the opener, Jackson sounds as rambunctious and steadfast as Bono when she demands that “People of the world unite”.

Without compromising the integrity of the album, but revealing the illusion of a socially conscious concept album, the middle third of the album offers the best cuts on the album like the sweet “Love Will Never Do”, and the insanely catchy “Miss You Much”, which I’m not convinced wasn’t secretly produced or in any way influenced by Prince.  Even though “Rhythm Nation” is the most memorable track, and “Love Will Never Do” is more indicative of Janet’s sound, “Miss You Much” is hypnotizing.  Between the rhythmic chorus, Janet’s falsetto chuckles (reminiscent of her older brother), and the funky guitar (Prince?), “Miss You Much” winds up being on the very short list of best cuts.  Playing to the times, “Black Cat” is a hard rocker that becomes even more valuable when compared to the underwhelming final third of Rhythm Nation.

Although Rhythm Nation consciously chooses to abandon its most overt and intended themes less than halfway through, the biggest letdown of the album proves to be its underwhelming third act.  For an album that is so assertive in its own agenda for the first 2/3, to end with three consecutive and drawn out ballads feels like the quickest and least gratifying orgasm after 45 minutes of tantalizing foreplay.  At least two of the final four cuts should have been left off the album (probably “Lonely” and “Come Back to Me”) as they don’t offer anything positive besides making the listener question the focus of the album.

And then there are the interludes, which should never exist on any album.  Either make the interludes a part of the track that follows, or omit it entirely.  Listeners are smart enough to figure out that a track called “State of the World” is about decay and the shitty circumstance that people live in without having to listen to a 20 second interlude of someone conveniently channel surfing through the most dour news stations.  Having a song sandwiched between two 9 second interludes does nothing but fragment the album by dulling the meaning of the actual songs.

Rhythm Nation has its flaws, but it’s an album whose merits far outweighs its shortcomings.  When she sticks to what she knows, as on “Love Will Never Do” and “Escapades”, Jackson does it better than she ever has before?  When she decides to experiment, like on “Black Cat”, she proves that she has the artistic durability and credibility to succeed.  And when she wants to kick our ass, as she does on the title track, she can just as easily do that too.  It’s only when she tries to subdue herself and her intentions that the album falters.  Rhythm Nation is an album that should kick ass, and for the first 2/3, it does just that.  Despite a deflating ending, Rhythm Nation was a huge step forward for Janet Jackson.  She’s no longer asking questions like “What have you done for me lately”, she’s offering a solution to an even more pressing question: “Are we looking for a better way of life”.  That answer is the Rhythm Nation.

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