In the scandal-prone world of midriff-pop, there's not much downside to a little bit of infamy. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, flashing the nation at the Super Bowl looks like a lousy career choice by Janet Jackson.
It did spark the kind of outrage that Britney dreams about every time her head hits the pillow, but it also elevated expectations for Janet's next album, which hit stores yesterday. It should have been obvious well before she rigged up that tearaway bra: Bare a boob on TV, and you better not deliver a bust.
"Damita Jo" isn't exactly a bust, but it's a pretty middling effort. It continues Ms. Jackson's evolution from that fist-crossing, chair-tossing power dancer she was in the late '80s and toward the self-obsessed seductress we first met in 1993 on "janet." The beats on "Damita" are mostly erotic and mid-tempo, the vocals are generally breathy and pushed to the back of the mix and the music is humid with sex. A lot of sex, all of it self-consciously naughty. And so the album might remind listeners of the publicity stunt that preceded it. Like getting naked on network television, "Damita" has about it a hint of desperation.
Which was inevitable. Janet is in danger of being overshadowed by a generation of far younger performers who weren't in their teens when she founded the "Rhythm Nation." Youth is a very considerable asset in this line of work, and not just because it's easier for a 20-year-old to wedge into a pleather bodysuit. A youngster can get X-rated and come across as a wayward kid who has plenty of time to straighten out her act. Ms. Jackson is 37. When she moans and boasts through "Warmth" -- one of the more explicit paeans to oral sex you'll ever hear on a major label -- she sounds like she knows better and is pretending that she doesn't.
But that's a guess. For all the time we've spent admiring her gifts, we don't really know much about Janet, except that she always seemed like the reachable Jackson, the Jackson who, relatively speaking, was at ease with herself. When she starred in her own Divas Gone Wild video at halftime you got the sense that she'd been vacationing in that freaky fringe where her most famous older brother lives full-time. It's the place where narcissism has run riot over common sense.
Of course, Janet was baiting us with that "costume reveal," and just as obviously she didn't realize at the time how much chum she was throwing in the water. But listening to "Damita Jo" -- it's her middle names, by the way -- you get the sense of the combination of flop-sweat and self-absorption that went into concocting that wardrobe malfunction. The album is interrupted every 15 minutes for a running, first-person narration of her likes and dislikes. ("I love the palm trees, I love the sand," she says at one point, about her favorite island, Anguilla, to the sound of waves lapping against a shore.) And Janet has decided that the only way to fight her imitators is get even racier than they get, even if that might cost her a little dignity.
With longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis again in charge of most of the tracks, Jackson lowers her voice to a neo-soul purr on songs like "Moist," a pornographic tribute to a lover over a beat as misty as summer rain. Her libido leads her to some inane lyrics on tracks like "Sexhibition" ("I just want to sexplore you") but guest producer Dallas Austin injects enough torque into the music to make Missy Elliott envious. Jay-Z makes a cameo as a sample on "Strawberry Bounce," one of a couple of tracks crafted by Kanye West. A New Wave-vintage guitar riff ignites the very catchy first single, "Just a Little While."
The unifying theme here is Janet's unlimited lust, though there are nods to other passions, too. R&B is raved about on "R&B Junkie," which is constructed on a thumping old-school hip-hop beat and samples Evelyn "Champagne" King's "I'm in Love." At moments like that you can hear what Jackson could create if she felt the license to truly experiment, rather than just up the ante in skin wars. The heart of an artist beats underneath that nipple ring. But it'll take genuine guts to show us that.