Son of Baldwin’s Top 10 Favorite Janet Jackson Album Cuts of All-Time

Image Description: A screenshot from Janet Jackson’s “Made For Now” video featuring Jackson seated amongst a group of colorfully dressed people from the African diaspora.

Happy #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay!

Janet Jackson Appreciation Day was created in 2018 by Matthew A. Cherry to right a wrong.

This celebration is in recognition of Jackson’s amazing contributions to culture, as well as recompense for how the NFL, Les Moonves, and others attempted (but failed) to destroy her career. Also, this year, to coincide with Janet Jackson Appreciation Day, we will be celebrating #JusticeForDamitaJo, which seeks to restore the glory Damita Jo, the first Jackson album to suffer a kind of blacklisting as a result of the industry’s attempt to erase Jackson’s influence from the zeitgeist. So make sure to stream the album or buy it online to make it the #1 album it should have been from the start.

Every Super Bowl Sunday from now into perpetuity, we shall take what was formerly used to watch and support the racist, misogynistic, and ableist nightmare that is the NFL corporation and use it to celebrate one of the greatest entertainers of all-time, Janet Jackson.

Last year, on the day of the inaugural celebration, I shared my favorite Janet Jackson music videos of all time. This year, I’m going through her entire discography to name my 10 favorite album cuts (songs not released commercially as charting singles).

Let the music play!

10. “Trust A Try” from All For You (2001)

“Trust A Try” is a song that should have been a single, and probably would have been if 2001 wasn’t the year of 9/11. It was also the year that Napster Robin Hooded a record industry that truly deserved to be robbed given the outrageous pricing and how it used to force us to buy an entire album just for one good song. “Trust” is classic Janet, merging genres (opera, rock, pop, and funk) to give us a danceable, head-thrasher of a jam. She performed this song live during the All For You tour and it was probably the best performance of the show because it gave her the room she needed to let loose in all her gothic realness. This year, Jackson will finally be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — much to the chagrin of so-called “rock purists” who lamented that she is both overrated and from the wrong genre of music (i.e. “not hard-rock music”). First of all, Janet Jackson is anything but overrated (please read how I had to correct the record on that in a Twitter education I had time to provide). Second of all, Jackson has been singing rock music, among other genres, since she was 15 (Her first album, Janet Jackson, contains the rock ditty, “Come Give Your Love To Me” — look, she even did the White Girl Bop to it when she performed it and everything), and co-produced and wrote the guitar riff to her #1 rock song, “Black Cat.” So, can’t nobody tell me Janet don’t rock out. But even if she didn’t sing, write, and produce rock music per se, these rock purists (who are mainly but not only white men) fail to realize that rock & roll, a BLACK art form (invented by a Black queer woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe), is an umbrella term for music that makes you groove or rebel, and includes blues, gospel, jazz, R&B, and hip hop, in addition to hard rock, heavy metal, etc. So yeah. Trust me. Get into this song and get your groove back.

9. “Strawberry Bounce” from Damita Jo (2004)

“Strawberry Bounce” is a hip-hop influenced, sexy little jam. It puts me in the mind of a song by Jay-Z produced by Swizz Beatz called “Girl’s Best Friend”, which is interesting because “Bounce” features a sample of Jay-Z’s voice. The song is about a woman who is performing a strip tease for a dude. Jackson’s voice is light and airy on top and her trademark harmonies swoop and slide in and out of the song as the drums pound and a twinkling bell hovers above. The uptempo push of the song always puts me in a good mood and, at the same time, makes me feel a little naughty. This song is real cute and showcases Jackson’s playful side.

8. “Lonely” from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation: 1814 (1989)

Before there was “I Get Lonely,” there was just “Lonely.” On this song, Jackson laments being surrounded by people and still feeling lonely. She speaks a little Spanish at the beginning and end of this song, and the song itself does seem to have a bit of a Spanish influence, particularly in the guitar. Janet Jackson is a severely underrated balladeer and might low-key be the best balladeer of a generation. Her vocals here are sensitive and restrained in a way that not only allows the song to breathe (and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s trademark simple, yet complex production to shine), but also conveys the delicate, introspective emotions of the song. Ballads, particularly quiet storm ballads, require someone who knows how to ride the melody gently, to tap when the instinct is to push, and to warmly embrace when the instinct is to pull. Jackson is a master of that sort of precision. And “Lonely,” particularly toward the end of the song, is where Jackson demonstrates this peculiar talent.

7. “Moist” from Damita Jo (2004)

“Sucking on my mmmm with ice in your mouth.”

“Moist” is actually part two of a suite. In the first part, “Warmth,” Jackson sings about the joys of fellatio — how much she likes it, how great she is at it, and how no one will ever find anyone better at it. “Moist” is Jackson saying: “Okay. Now that I’ve taken care of you, it’s time for you to take care of me.” In this song, which is crafted over one of the smoothest, jazziest refrains ever, sampling a Curtis Mayfield classic, Jackson goes into detail about the proper way her lover should perform cunnilingus on her, and how they would know how good they are at it based on the particular biological responses of her privates. This song is SO GROWN AND SEXY on some Millie Jackson-type jawn, but you would never know just how explicit it is because of how daintily and demurely Jackson delivers it. Hiding your freak factor in plain sight has got to be a sought-after talent. This is what sensuality sounds like.

This is a song to make love to on a dark and stormy night.

6. “State of the World” from Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation: 1814 (1989)

This song BANGS. “State Of The World” — which could have been the eighth top five hit off Rhythm Nation, but A&M wanted people to buy the album so released it as a “radio-only” promotion— is the epitome of the New Jack Swing genre of music. It’s such a street-sounding song with dogs barking and glass crashing and garbage cans banging, and a dirty synth beat that borrows a bit from Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.” The lyrics are serious as Jackson outlines a list of all the troubling things happening in the world from poverty to sucidial queer children. It’s hard to believe that this song was written in the 80s because it applies so well to the current moment. But what that reveals is how little the world has changed in 30 years. Jackson knows it, too. Which was why she revamped her Unbreakable tour so that the social-justice themes this song explores could be revisited in her State of the World tour. And she did so with great effect.

5. “Enjoy” from 20 Y.O. (2006)

This is such a sweet, uplifting song. Whenever I’m down, I listen to this song to cheer myself up. On this track, Jackson sings inspirationally over a funky-ass beat by The Avila Brothers — first low, then high — about not letting the past hold you back from future improvement or negativity ruin your present moment. It has a lot in common with her latest hit song, “Made For Now,” but is set firmly inside the best of the R&B landscapes. It’s a very happy song (though, there is a blues hiding in there somewhere as she might be alluding to the Super Bowl incident and the hate she endured as a result of it) and features some of Jackson’s best background harmonies. Speaking of Jackson’s best background harmonies…

4. “When We Ooo” from All For You (2001)

Janet Jackson’s vocal ability is often underrated, or criticized as not having the power or range of, say, a Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, or Patti LaBelle, or any other black-church-raised-and-trained singers. So you’ll hear a lot of the “Janet Jackson can’t sing!” commentary from those who feel that you’re only a real singer if you can sing in the gospel tradition’s definition of “sing.” That leaves out so many other artists (like Sade, for example) who do something else with their voices (other than belt or run or scream or hit dog-whistle notes) that is no less valuable to the art form. To that point, Jackson has one of the smoothest tones in the game. Her timbre is incredibly versatile. And she possesses an uncanny, almost supernatural ability to harmonize with herself in ways that can only be rivaled by Tweet or Joe. Jackson’s vocal stacks and blends are remarkable; even Brandy, The Vocal Bible herself, said so. Jimmy Jam once said that Jackson is one of the hardest working vocalists he has ever worked with; that she will sing every part of a song, and has an uncanny ability to “hear notes that are next to each other, but still stack them.”

Which brings us to “When We Ooo.” If you listen to closely, you can hear Jackson putting in that background work. The harmonies are gorgeous and indulgent, making this song sound angelic. In fact, the best parts of the song are the ones that utilize Jackson’s harmonies as the main instrument. I would love to hear an acapella of this track because HEAVENLY.

3. “Black Eagle” from Unbreakable

“Black Eagle” is a haunting song that stays with you long after you hear it. Using the black eagle as a metaphor from everything from the divine to Black Lives Matter, Jackson softly sings about specific crimes against humanity against a sparse beat that, when the bass drops…whew! Something cosmic happens. This is a song to listen to in a lounge, under purple lights, watching gently rocking bodies and swaying silhouettes, with your favorite drink in your hand (even if that happens to be red Kool-Aid), surrounded by black people who understand your struggle, but also want to help you forget for a few moments while you groove to a song that pays homage to it. I’m aware that that’s a contradiction. But some of the best art comes from just such tension.

2. “Funny How Times Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” from Control (1986)

Oh, honey.

This is the slow jam that started it all. You couldn’t have any of Jackson’s other baby-making songs if you didn’t have this one first. I was 15 when I first heard this one. I had just bought the Control album — the first album I ever bought with my own money. It was on sale for $6.99 down at The Wiz and I was hype to finally be able to buy albums for my own collection like my elder family members had been doing for generations. And I got home, opened it up, placed it on the record player, and was jamming through all of the songs and then at the end, I heard twinkling. Then I heard Jackson speaking in French. And then, by the time she reached the end of the song, she was moaning like she was having sex, and I stood there in wide-eyed shock. Then, I covered my mouth and started giggling like I did when I snuck and listened to my father’s old Richard Pryor records when I was 4 or 5.This song had the nerve to come after “Let’s Wait Awhile” in the track listing, too. So, “waiting” meant a good four and a half minutes and then it was time to get busy. It was all very tasteful, but that moaning let me know Jackson wasn’t slick. And I just knew I was grown too because this was the first album in my collection and I bought it with my own summer-job money and Jackson was only five years older than me. But I still made sure to play it on volume “1” if my mother was home. I just had to press my ear up against the speaker to hear it.

Almost nowhere else is Jackson’s older brother’s influence more clear. On “Funny,” she’s reminiscent of him on his song “Lady In My Life.” Even some of the same riffs and ad libs and vocal arrangements are there. But Janet’s rendition is savvier, riskier, wiser, more self-assured — and just as heartfelt. This song has a lifetime achievement spot on every slow jam mixtape in the world.

Jackson and crew had anticipated releasing this song as a single. Legend has it that she even recorded an extended, even-steamier version for the 12". But A&M was like, “Nah. You just said ‘let’s wait awhile’ and now you don’t want to wait no more? Chill. We’ll release a smooth ‘The Pleasure Principle’ instead and call it a day.”

Before I die, I want to hear that remix. :)

1. “Empty” from The Velvet Rope” (1997)

This is the song that proves Janet Jackson is time traveler from the future.

First of all, I’m not even sure how to categorize this track; it defies genre. I’ve never before heard anything like it, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything like it since (except, maybe, in some of Hiatus Kaiyote’s work). It’s just magnificent craftwork about a woman realizing how digital relationships lack transparency and are, yet, addictive. It gets to the heart of the sense of isolation present in many online interactions, and the ability to create fantasies in such spaces, even if those fantasies are revealed to be a distraction in the long run. And Jackson was writing about this in 1997, when the mainstream Internet was only two years old. How prescient.

But the beat. What. Is. That. Beat? What an amazing array of sights and sounds and colors. It’s like an ocean wave cheering the moon on. It’s like flowers blooming on Mars. It’s like the rings of Saturn talking. It’s like the laughter of the ancestors meeting. It’s like the sound of escaping The Sunken Place. And Jackson repeating, over and over, with her marvelous harmonies, “When I close my eyes..,” this is a song to get lost in, stretching the boundaries of black music, which is to say music period, since every bit of music being listened to today is the product of (and appropriated from) black people.

Jackson snapped on this song. And I realize why it wasn’t released as a single: It was too far ahead of its time, and radio would have had no idea what to do with it. Shit, this song is probably from 2036. So there’s still 17 years before we’ll know what to do with all this sonic greatness.

Honorable Mention

Janet Jackson has a huge discography and so many great songs you may have never heard. Here are a few that didn’t make my list, but are worth a listen:

“Discipline” from Discipline; “Do It 2 Me” from 20 Y.O.; “Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing” from Janet Jackson; “Dream Maker / Euphoria” from Unbreakable; “Island Life” from Damita Jo; “My Need” from The Velvet Rope; “Night” from Unbreakable; “Pretty Boy” from Dream Street; “Take Me Away” from Unbreakable; “The Body That Loves You” from janet.; “Throb” from janet.; and “Where Are You Now?” from janet.