Janet Jackson, Back in Fine Form

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Janet Jackson has discovered the fountain of youth, and the 40-year-old pop diva is celebrating by peeling off her clothes and frolicking half-naked in the water.

Oh, wait; that's just the cover of Vibe magazine, on which the exceedingly fit singer is standing in the ocean, wearing a shell necklace, a barely there bikini bottom and nothing else -- her right arm strategically placed over the Jackson Two.

Musical trends have come and gone at a dizzying rate since the 1986 arrival of Jackson's breakthrough album, "Control." But at least one thing has remained constant: Sex still sells.

And so Jackson has front-loaded her new CD, "20 Y.O.," with songs that are more or less about backing that (ahem) up. This isn't a shocking development: Miss Jackson has long performed sexually charged material, dating back to "Control"-era numbers like "Nasty." And her previous CD, 2004's "Damita Jo," sounded in spots like a soft-focus pornographic fantasy. Not that anybody noticed; released shortly after Jackson's revealing Super Bowl halftime performance, "Damita Jo" was a flop.

Her new album's title refers to the anniversary of "Control" as well as her assertion that she suddenly feels half her age. At the very least, she looks something close to it; but she's intent on proving it musically, too, at least on the first part of "20 Y.O."

Whereas the uneven album's superior second half focuses on lush quiet-storm balladry and charming mid-tempo material, Jackson first flashes her sexual side through a half-dozen thumping if generally tuneless hip-hop/R&B hybrids. They're carnal club tracks meant to convey artistic vitality and give Jackson relevancy in a contemporary marketplace that champions youth and freshness.

"I'm-a keep your body thumping, baby," she purrs on the opener, "So Excited," a not very exciting hip-hop track that rides a sampled drum break and turntable scratches from Herbie Hancock's "Rock It." On "Get It Out Me," which echoes Afrika Bambaataa's electro-rap classic "Looking for the Perfect Beat," Jackson sings about sexual creativity and her desire to try the taboo. It's a subject she and her army of songwriting collaborators think about often, apparently: In the syncopated, handsomely arranged "Do It 2 Me," Jackson sings that "there are no boundaries to what we'll do."

But don't let the mind wander too far, for Jackson's already thin voice tightens on the chorus to the point that she sounds strikingly similar to her brother Michael. And let's face it: There's probably no better way to ruin a hot sex song circa 2006 than to evoke images of Michael Jackson.

Still, Janet marches ahead with sexualized songs -- some of which are much more idiotic than others. "Show Me," for instance, challenges all comers to prove just how much they want Janet. Yet it's most notable for this lyrical gem: "When I'm next to you / I get this feeling that maybe I'm willing to stay next to you." That may well go down as the Dumbest Couplet of 2006, Six or More Songwriters Division: Jackson wrote the track with her Grammy-winning beau, Jermaine Dupri; her old "Control" collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; and Manuel Seal and Johnta Austin.

For all the creative people who contributed ideas to the album (some snap music here! a thug-love duet with Nelly there!), "20 Y.O." isn't exactly a groundbreaking, state-of-the-art effort along the lines of, say, Justin Timberlake's forward-thinking collaborations with Timbaland on "FutureSex/LoveSounds" or Cassie's eponymous, Ryan Leslie-produced debut, which is so incredibly stylish that it's easy to forgive the CD's decided lack of substance.

Still, "20 Y.O." takes a smart, likable turn as it passes the midway point and Jackson puts her clothes back on to sing songs with real melodies -- as with the charming, chiming "Daybreak," which sounds like an update of 1989's "Escapade."

Jackson's second-half tone is different, too: warmer, more loving, less lascivious. "When I'm in those arms of yours, I'm so gone," she coos on "With U."

Even better is the hypnotic "Enjoy." The affirmative lyrics are somewhat cliched, but they're overcome by the song's breezy tunefulness and its youthful surprise: the singing kids who "la-la-la" the track to its conclusion.

DOWNLOAD THESE : "Enjoy," "Do It 2 Me," "Daybreak"

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