Janet Jackson's 20 Best Songs - The Definitive Verdict

Janet Jackson's 20 Best Songs - The Definitive Verdict

Within Jackson’s discography, we hear the stars of today...

Every era has its icons but few have managed to define a generation like Janet Jackson. A pioneering force from the moment she took command of her career with ‘Control’, Jackson reinvented herself with every subsequent era: from the socially conscious hit parade ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’, to the new jack swing empress on ‘Janet.’, to the graphic exhibitionism and neo soul saunter of her ‘Velvet Rope’ era, Jackson never rested on her laurels.

To commemorate Jackson’s 55th birthday, Clash have compiled a chronological list of Janet’s most era-defining songs and our favourite deep cuts, charting her transition from a wide-eyed debutante with girl next door appeal to a risqué provocateur.

A vitrine of versatility, for three decades Jackson was a consistent, at times radical presence in popular music. Within Jackson’s discography, we hear the stars of today. She is the blueprint.

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What Have You Done For Me Lately?

The lead single from her seminal ‘Control’ album sees Jackson put her lover on blast. At a time when Whitney Houston was second-guessing about the intentions of her companion, with all the wide-eyed naivety of a pig-tail sporting middle-schooler, her namesake Janet Rushmore pleading freedom from an overbearing lover, Jackson was asserting her dominance over her love interest in a manner previously almost unique to her male counterparts.

The quality of the song’s melody, the ferociousness of its beat, and a music video that featured a dance-off so tight that it makes the ‘Step Up’ films look like amateur improv, all help to make this song an enduring classic. But nothing is more powerful in ensuring the magnitude of its legacy like the words it displays and the voice that delivers them.

Where her contemporaries would leave their most notable works open to fair criticism as gender equality became a more prescient issue, Jackson’s stock, as evidenced by this song and her many others from this era, continued to grow. Mike Watkins

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In terms of songs that grab you right from the outset, Janet Jackson’s brutalist groove behemoth ‘Nasty’ is very hard to top. Supported by a beat so primitively and innately funky, the second single from her high watermark album ‘Control’, Jackson flips the typical gender dynamic on its head, affirming her authority with killer lines like “no my first name ain’t ‘baby’/It’s ‘Janet’/‘Miss Jackson if you’re nasty”, and a synth melody so earwormy that it can pop up in your conscious mind with little to no trigger.

If you listen carefully, you’ll also notice that the song is bookmarked by an emphases first found in James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’, further highlighting Jackson’s ability to take an established piece of music and make it entirely her own. The career that she would enjoy through the late 80s and all of the 90s that, in many ways, eclipses that of any other member of her family, can be directly traced back to her yell of “gimme a beat” at the start of this song. A cultural reset and then some. Mike Watkins

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When I Think Of You

The album ‘Control’ was predicated around a break from the squeaky-clean image she’d leave to her teen years, and a signal that she was in command - and yet, her first US number one, ‘When I Think of You’, is one of the least assertive tracks in Janet’s discography. Quintessential ‘80s dance-pop, ‘When I Think of You’ is an uncomplicated love song, plain and simple.

Breezy, youthful and free, the track was released when the public were beginning to embrace Jackson on her own. Short, detached lyrics (“So in love - ooh - so in love - with you”) interspersed with spoken word and decadent ad-libs, cruise over a darting, drum-like bassline that mimics the beating of a heart. The track is unrestrained and joyful, fully embracing head-over-heels devotion. Sabrina Soormally

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“Did what my father said, and let my mother mould me…but that was a long time ago,” Jackson snarls on the title track from her third studio album, released in 1986.

‘Control’, with its twitchy sequenced and syncopated rhythms packed a revolutionary sonic punch. As much as it embodied Jackson’s liberation from her Dadager, it also introduced the world to production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who established a new kind of programmed percussive backdrop: their unique blend of staccato rhythms and synthesized arrangements were so in tune with Jackson’s crisp airy vocals, she’d go on to collaborate with the pair for the best part of the next decade.

‘Control’ - the song and the accompanying album - is a paean to individuality and ownership, an anthem for the rebels forging their own path. It signposted Jackson’s newfound self-determination; a gutsy breakaway from the Jackson dynasty and the beckoning of a new chapter. Shahzaib Hussain

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The Pleasure Principle

If there’s one thing Janet Jackson knows, it’s how to lay a breakup track over an irresistible dance beat. ‘The Pleasure Principle’ is an unapologetic, female empowerment anthem, a bittersweet tale of fleeting love gone wrong “in a big yellow taxi” - a nod to Joni Mitchell that would resurface on ‘The Velvet Rope’s’ ‘Got ’Til It’s Gone’.

An ode to self-love, the synth-driven track is toned down in the context of Jackson’s body of work, precise and careful, but still, an undeniable dancefloor hit. Released with one of the most influential music videos of all time - see Kanye’s ‘Fade’, Britney’s ‘Stronger’ and Cassie’s ‘Me & U’ - the infamous solo dance routine earned Janet the Best Choreography award at the 1988 MTV Music Video Awards. Sabrina Soormally

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Miss You Much

“Get the message?” says Jackson. "Good. Let’s dance!” There begins the opening beat for ‘Miss You Much’. The eighth track and lead single from ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’, ‘Miss You Much’ ascended to number one after two years of chart silence for Jackson.

A pining, subversive love song based on a breakup letter, the track is undeniably sexy with assertive lyrics and a manoeuvring dance beat over Jackson’s signature sweet yet teasing style. Modelled on both Prince’s ‘Kiss’ and Jackson’s own ‘Nasty’, the playful push and pull of ‘Miss You Much’ lays a punchy dance groove that signalled the birth of her sex symbol status and inspired a thousand dizzying, haphazard chair-dances. Sabrina Soormally

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Rhythm Nation

Jackson took a more pronounced socio-political stance on ‘Rhythm Nation’, moving the marker from insular tales of young love to universal declarations of justice and equity, juxtaposing it against one of the most iconic “telemusical” dance spectacles in music history. The near primal scream, 6-minute marathon was produced to amplify Jackson’s command of movement: movement as a show of strength and timed discipline. To Jackson, music and dance were synonymous social healers. Whilst dance as a measure of musical ability has often been downplayed by traditionalists, through the monochrome visual which churned out choreography like heavy artillery, Jackson brought “performance artistry” to the mainstage.

Regarded as a signature new jack swing creation, Jackson embraced her role as the mouthpiece for a displaced, multi-ethnic dreamland. With ‘Rhythm Nation’, Jackson became the definitive iconoclast, merging consciousness with transcendent pop. Shahzaib Hussain

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“Janet wanted to have a song you'd hear at basketball games - big-crowd-type places - and that's how we came up with the really big beat,” Jimmy Jam said of the creative spark that produced the buoyant feel of ‘Escapade’. A moment of levity to offset the thematic weight of ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’, the light, spry ‘Escapade’ was a welcome burst of carefree joy, refreshing in its simplicity.

In the video, the “Janet Jackson smile” was on full display; her pursuit of happiness realized by a mirage of colourful carnival characters and the “es-ca-pade” chant matched by lithe but easy-to-learn choreography. Like the earlier hit ‘When I Think Of You’, Jackson skewed her place at the frontier of contemporary R&B, venturing into more poppier territory, appealing to the masses. Shahzaib Hussain

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Black Cat

Definitively one of the greatest and most ground-breaking albums in recent memory, ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ is an elaborate, genre-defying event of politics, dance and love songs that has stood the test of time. Told through layered rhythms of funk, pop and metal, the metal, of course, being ‘Black Cat’ - the only track written entirely by Jackson, and the most seditious at that. Stormy, sexy and wild, “Black Cat” is the ultimate departure from Jackson’s soft, dance-pop love songs.

Opening with a roar and unleashing a screeching guitar riff (also composed by Jackson), ‘Black Cat’ transformed Jackson into a stadium banging, heavy metal queen while maintaining her signature irresistible danceability. Jackson was really pushing herself musically, redefining what it meant to be a Black female pop star. An utter success, ‘Black Cat’ earned Jackson a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, making her the only artist in history to receive Grammy nominations across five genres. Sabrina Soormally

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That’s The Way Love Goes

Released almost thirty years ago, Jackson’s record-breaking deal with label Virgin, kicked off her self-titled era, ‘janet.’, another fearless sonic pivot. Jackson took greater creative ownership of her work, masterminding the album’s premise as a co-producer and writer on every track. A testament to her intrepid instincts as an artist, Jackson tempered her sound from the verboseness of her last era, opting instead for a plush, loungey vibe on the lead single, which presented Jackson in her purest form; soft but yielding, subtly erotic but tasteful.

Built around a reworked sample of James Brown's 1974 track - ‘Papa Don't Take No Mess’, Jackson, Jam and Lewis crafted a soundboard around come hither, innuendo-filled pleas for pleasure-seeking reciprocity: after all it’s about the marathon, not the sprint. The enduring popularity of this irresistible piece of vintage R&B lays in the fact that it’s one of Jackson’s most-streamed songs on Spotify, appealing to nostalgia heads and new listeners alike. Jackson successfully completed the transition to sex symbol status, a rare moment where a black woman within the pop culture sphere was celebrating her sexuality in her art without fear of reproach.

The revolution had begun. Shahzaib Hussain

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Picture this. The infamous cover of Rolling Stone magazine shot by photographer Patrick Demarchelier, doubling as album cover art; Janet nude in black and white, wearing nothing but denim and a halo of tousled curls, chest covered only by the hands of her then-boyfriend Rene Elizondo Jr. The title emblazoned in bold white “the joy of sex”.

Jackson was grown and she wanted everyone to know it. She centred the feminine and feminist experience of sex on ‘If’, melding together a confluence of genres to disorienting but entrancing effect. A future-facing cut, ‘If’ sounds just as fresh today as it did when it was first released.

If’ married hard rock distortion, cinematic strings and stacked harmonies to a mechanised, trip-hop beat. The urgency of Jackson’s voyeuristic desire was delivered in her rap-sung delivery, with words or summons that could make any man (or woman) swoon. The message of the song was alluded to in the title: What if? Janet never surrendered to her imagined fantasies: “If I was your woman, the things I'd do to you, but I'm not, so I can't, then I won't, but if I was your girl…” and it’s this contrived titillation, the foreplay without pay-off, that sets this lustful song apart from the many copycat versions that came after. Shahzaib Hussain

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1994.05.14 - SNL - Throb from Blank on Vimeo.

The ultimate party starter, this acid house new jazz stomper integrated sax loops, dizzying breaks, looped moans and groans to create the woozy underground rave moment of Janet’s eponymous release.

Beckoning a call and response with the DJ, there’s nothing reserved and timorous here. It’s loud, brazen, licentious and well, frank about its desired intention. Jackson visualized the camp frivolity and ballroom splendour with a rare performance of the song on Saturday Night Live: backed by her band of loyal dancers, the switch-up from loose improv to patterned, synchronized routines reminded us no one could in music could move and groove like Janet. “Boom, boom, boom, until noon, noon noon….” Shahzaib Hussain

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Any Time, Any Place (Album Version)

Jackson continued to unapologetically flaunt her sexual deliverance with this aromatic incense burner. With its lush, jazzy riffs, this near seven-minute late night odyssey never veered into tedium, instead it sweltered to a quiet storm delirium, as Jackson whispered sweet nothings in plain view of prying observers.

‘Any Time…” reminded the listener of Jackson’s virtue, even when procuring the services of her partner. Long before Beyoncé explored the physical act of love as a binding force in marital relationships, Jackson was exploring her own carnal quirks and needs within consensual partnerships, with a nuance and earnestness beyond her years.

The remixed version may have been a bigger airplay hit but the epic original, which bookended the ‘Janet.’ experience, exists in a league of its own, rewarding the listener (and Jackson’s lover) for their patience and stamina. Shahzaib Hussain

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Originally designed to be a duet with her brother Michael, he opted instead for the thunderous might of ‘Scream’ as a vehicle for the duo to show off their sibling synergy. Subsequently, Janet used the sitar strum breeziness of ‘Runaway’ to launch her first Greatest Hits collection, ‘Design Of A Decade’ in 1995.

The ‘Runaway Experience’ comprises Jackson’s lightweight vocal autotuned to choral effect, a “yeah yeah yeah” sing-along so infectious you can’t help but be cushioned by the saccharine colour clouds Jackson envelopes you in. In the video, Janet visits wonders and landmarks, figuratively and literally dancing on top of the world. The dodgy use of green screen only enhances the song’s quirky, honied and ultimately feel-good charm. Shahzaib Hussain

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Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Arriving nearly five years after it’s predecessor, 1996’s ‘The Velvet Rope’ saw Jackson further expound and expunge her inner demons: Jackson symbolised this tumultuous period in her life with the stylistic imprint of alternative sounds, namely neo-soul.

Interpolating “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” from Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ - manipulated just enough to sound like Jackson herself - the diminutive singer was able to echo Mitchell’s own interpersonal lament. Jackson embraced the directness and tapped-out energy of hip-hop: inspired by Dilla and his avant-garde approach to production, the lo-fi, boom-bap beat gave Jackson ample room to intone the loss and redemption she felt.

Through the Mark Romanek-directed video, with photographic contributions by photographers Samuel Fosso, Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, Jackson made a conventional breakup song an iconographic portrait of the black community at their most jubilant. The song and video are widely regarded as a seminal moment in Jackson’s career; melody, sample, the Q-Tip bluster, vocals and aspirational storytelling combining to lay the groundwork for the progressive R&B we hear today. Shahzaib Hussain

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Together Again

Conceived after the death of a friend to AIDS, ‘Together Again’ could have been tearful tribute to the fallen in its original form as a ballad. Reworked into an exquisite slice of pop-skewed house, replete with girl-group harmonies and perfectly-timed dance breaks, Jackson channelled the queer energy of disco icons of past in a song could melt the iciest of hearts.

The club-ready, Eurodance-indebted ‘Together Again’ was a hit worldwide: a mid-career highlight, it served as a cool retort to the naysayers who felt Jackson’s popularity was waning. For just a moment, we joined Jackson in her utopia. Shahzaib Hussain

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I Get Lonely

On the 18th track from her magnum opus ‘The Velvet Rope’, Janet made pining for a lost lover both sexy and elegiac. Written at a time when she was experiencing bouts of depression, Jackson, alongside Jam and Lewis, created one of the most symphonic moments of her career.

By intensifying Jackson’s warm and soothing tone, particularly during the chorus, they elevated a run-of-the-mill slow jam to something more sensory and vivid, Jackson’s anguish and bittersweet solitude grounded in realism because she was quite literally reaching the extremities of her voice. Backed by syrupy chord progressions, sporadic horns and understated inflections in production, Jackson further anchored her status as an R&B progenitor. Shahzaib Hussain

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All For You

Whilst we are on a roll of celebrations, this time last month ‘All for You’ turned 20! Released as the lead single off her seventh studio album of the same name, this track is a certified banger. With it’s nostalgic hit of neo-disco goodness, Jackson once again topped the Billboard Hot 100 – the longest-running number one of 2001.

Easily a tune to add to your ‘Out Out’ playlist, ‘All for You,’ manifests having the best night out with your girls. From the booze to the dancing to the men, Janet plays around with flirtatious lyrics, as she sings the line, “All my girls at the party, look at that body, shakin' that thing like you never did see. Got a nice package alright, guess I'm gonna have to ride it tonight.” From the funky bass plucks to her smooth vocal delivery, ‘All for You’ is easily one of Janet’s signature up-tempo hits. Laviea Thomas

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Would You Mind

Yes, another tantric moment. But the context is different this time. Coming after the divorce from her husband, Jackson’s ‘All For You’ phase epitomised a woman unshackled from the confines of monogamy and the graphic, satin sheet escapades on ‘Would You Mind’ is home to some of the most in-your-face, lewd proselytizing... ever.

Jackson would create a sequel of sorts with the stormy, boudoir heat of ‘Moist’ from her 2004 album ‘Damita Jo’, but the ‘Would You Mind’ raunchfest was the original inferno. Over iridescent keys and warped, cosmic overtones, Jackson’s sex-positive (re)awakening made for one of the most experimental moments on the album.

Is it corny? Yes. Is it also an inventive slice of soporific magic? Absolutely. Shahzaib Hussain

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Rock With U

Jackson’s later studio efforts may have lacked the foresight and innovativeness of her earlier releases, but occasional gems cropped up to prove she still knew her way around an agile beat: the 360° long take video for the song, featuring Jackson performing some of her most complex choreography to date, was easily one of the best visual pieces released in 2008.

Taken from her tenth studio, ‘Discipline’, the Jermaine Dupri-produced ‘Rock With U’ was Jackson’s thank you to the queer community. With its pirouetting synths, recalling paradisiacal disco glory, Jackson gave us one of her final bops of the new millennia.

"Strobe lights make everything sexier." Indeed. Shahzaib Hussain

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