Every couple of months, I’ll think to myself, “Why is no one realizing that Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation is the most relevant album ever?”
The album–it’s full name being Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814–is one of my all-time favorite albums ever. I have personal reasons as to why I always found it relevant, as this was one of first albums I ever remember listening to as a kid. Thanks to my dad’s love of music, I grew up classics from the past (as we all do) as well as much of the day’s contemporary music. The albums I remember the most from my childhood are from En Vogue, Toni Braxton, and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. I also remember my dad always skipping certain songs; for Rhythm Nation, the song to always skip was “Someday is Tonight.” If you know the album, you’ll know why this song was always skipped; a 5-year-old shouldn’t be hearing Janet Jackson moan and talk about sex on a song. True fact: I only started listening to this song just a few years ago. Thanks to a childhood full of skipping this song, I still feel like I shouldn’t be hearing it.
But aside from my childhood reasons, why is this album relevant to 2018? Why should you care to go back to 1989 when there’s tons of relevant music in 2018? Here are three big reasons.
1. New jack swing is back: If Bruno Mars’ Grammy win for 24K Magic didn’t solidify it for you, the sounds of the late ’80s and early ’90s are back, and that includes new jack swing, the genre Mars used for his award-winning album. Mars name-checked Teddy Riley, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in his acceptance speech, and if you’re wondering who those people are and what the original new jack swing sounds like, Rhythm Nation is a great example.
Jackson worked with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, legendary producing team and two of the key architects of the New Jack Swing sound, to create the album. The sound was initially perfected on Jackson’s Control album and their signatures, which musicologist and author Richard J. Ripani PhD described as “creating a fusion of R&B, rap, funk, disco and synthesized percussion,” paved the way for Teddy Riley, who led late ’80s/early ’90s group Guy and coined the term “new jack swing,” to define the genre even more.
2. It’s socially conscious: If you listen to the album, you’ll find it hauntingly familiar. Jackson’s talking about issues that we thought we only deal with in the 21st century–mass shootings, extreme poverty, disillusionment, and violence. If Jackson was talking about these issues around 30 years ago, it says a lot about how much America hasn’t changed at all. If anything, you could say we’ve gotten worse.
The key song that drives this home is “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make).” The song is all about children who are thrown into a world that teaches them one thing, but acts the complete opposite. Instead of finding opportunity, children find violence and fear. The chilling ending to the song has the children’s choir backing Jackson’s vocals sound as if they’ve been shot in a mass shooting. It’s a song that will leave you thinking, even as you move onto the album’s more club-ready tracks.
3. The revolution won’t be televised; it’ll be sung in the club: While Rhythm Nation is a great time capsule of new jack swing, it’s a protest album at heart. The main goal for Jackson was to impress upon the listener why the issues of the day must be met with urgency and passion. The song “Rhythm Nation” is all about people of all races and backgrounds coming together “to improve our way of life.” There’s no division in protest, as long as the protest is about everyone ultimately living in harmony and peace. All are welcome to the table as long as all are willing to stand up for each other.
While music has always had a foot in the political space, Rhythm Nation is the most prominent political album of the late-’80s, continuing the path set by political music of the past while forging a new path for political albums in more modern times. While the protest music of the ’60s was often made to deliver a message and not get played in clubs, Rhythm Nation fused both frivolity and serious together in a package that certainly spoke to me as a child, and I believe it spoke to a lot of people who weren’t use to having politics intertwined with their dance music. Jackson’s decision to divide the album between message music and love songs by saying, “Get the point? Good. Let’s dance,” let the listener know it’s okay to feel sympathy about all of these issues and still have fun, because life goes on regardless. You can be both serious-minded and fun and funky too. Today’s popular albums, like Beyonce’s Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar’s D.A.M.N. and To Pimp a Butterfly, and Jay Z’s 4:44 all owe a debt to Rhythm Nation in that regard–they follow in the album’s footsteps of meshing radio-friendly beats with serious discussions about serious issues.
In short, Rhythm Nation is an album we should bring back into the national conversation. It’s relevance hasn’t faded over time; if anything, it only seems more poignant today–it’s not like there wasn’t a reason for Jackson naming her latest tour after one of the album’s songs, “State of the World.” With the state of the world being what it is, we need someone like Jackson to help us get through the tough times while helping us get our groove on, too.