Being Michael Jackson's brother or sister must be as frustrating as it is exciting. Whenever one of the other Jacksons launches a solo project, the results -- both artistic and commercial -- suffer from the inevitable comparisons to Mr. Thriller. On the other hand, when the Jackson siblings collaborate with the Gloved One, they usually get lost in the long shadows cast by Michael.
Janet Jackson, the baby sister, makes a bold bid to break free from the family curse on her new album, "Control" (A&MSP-5106). She begins the album with a spoken introduction that resembles Prince's sermon intro to "Let's Go Crazy." "This is a story about control," Janet insists, "control of what I say, control of what I do. This time I'm going to do it my way."
She gets lots of help from songwriter-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, formerly of the Time, but Janet cowrote, coproduced and coarranged nearly every song and plays synthesizers throughout the album. More dramatically, she breaks with the clean-cut image of the Jackson family and growls lasciviously about what she wants from her men.
The hottest production team in black music right now, Jam and Lewis give every song an industrial strength dance beat and a Prince-like swirl. Their inescapable rhythm tracks are an innovative mix of scratches and sonic boom electric drums from New York's hip-hop scene with the swelling synths and wailing rock guitars from Minneapolis' funk-wave scene.
Because she helped put together the rhythm tracks in the studio, Janet's vocals are locked into every syncopated whip crack of the back beat. She has a light, breathy voice, but she uses it so knowingly that each song is filled with romantic and/or sexual desire. In sharp contrast to her young innocent image on past records, Janet now sounds quite experienced and very sure of what she wants. When she sings "You Can Be Mine," it's as much a challenge as an invitation.
The first single, "What Have You Done for Me Lately," is already a black chart hit, and Janet nails the album's catchiest melody to a tricky rhythm figure. The sassy way she delivers the title line sells the song's witty lyrics. "Nasty" is a bawdy celebration of her newly discovered taste for not-so-nice men; her vocals are every bit as funky as the percussion-heavy arrangement.
"When I Think of You" takes a more romantic approach, and Janet's vocals bubble with an enthusiasm that spills over into irrepressible musical laughter. The album's best track, though, is "You Can Be Mine"; the wall-of-funk arrangement keeps changing and building until it climaxes in Jellybean Johnson's screaming guitar solo. Janet's vocals also keep shifting between the seductive and the taunting until they simply glow with the pleasure of her new confidence in her music and in herself.
At one point, it looked as if Jermaine Jackson were going to escape Michael's shadow by creating his own progressive soul sound in the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Jermaine made some solid, underrated albums in that style -- especially 1980's "Let's Get Serious" and 1982's "Let Me Tickle Your Fancy."
Jermaine's new album, "Precious Moments" (Arista AL8-8277), is dedicated to Gaye, but Gaye's progressive influence has virtually disappeared from Jermaine's music. In its place are last year's Top 40 formulas. Jermaine actually handles these commercial cliche's pretty well, but there's nothing here that could be called innovative or even distinctive.
The album's only standout track is "I Think It's Love," cowritten by Stevie Wonder, Michael Omartian and Jermaine. It boasts a truly original melody tied in tightly to a wickedly syncopated rhythm track. It's full of delicious Wonder touches: sly shifts, dramatic builds and sharp hooks. The material cowritten and coproduced by Tom Keane and Jermaine, by contrast, is almost instantly forgettable.
LaToya Jackson may be as good looking as her brother Michael, but she's no more talented than her brother Tito. There's no substance to her thin vocal tone, no instinct to her sloppy phrasing and no personality to her bland delivery. LaToya's latest effort is "Imagination" (Private I BFZ 40267), produced by West Coast pop-soul hacks Mike Piccirillo and Gary Goetzman. They write punchy rhythm tracks, snappy melody hooks and utterly undemanding lyrics for LaToya, but the center of every song still is hollow.