These Days, Janet's the Thriller : JANET JACKSON, "The Velvet Rope" Virgin, * * * *

Seldom has a mouse roared more loudly or gloriously than Janet Jackson. When she embarked on a recording career 15 years ago, few could have guessed that this tentative-sounding young singer would ultimately outrank her prodigiously gifted brother, Michael, as the most consistently exciting entertainer in pop music's most famous family.

But since joining forces with writer-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in the mid-'80s, Jackson, now 31, has done just that--not only by serving as a muse for Jam and Lewis' superior musical savvy, but also by being that rare artist who can inspire both adoration and empathy in her fans. With her three previous albums--1986's "Control," 1989's "Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814" and 1993's "janet."--Jackson sang for a generation of women in tracing her evolution from a plucky but sometimes confused teenager into a self-assured, sexually assertive adult.

"The Velvet Rope" picks up where "janet." left off, in both its themes and its textures. Ostensibly a concept album centered on our common need "to feel that we belong," as Jackson declares on the percolating title track, this new collection of songs and "interludes" addresses the social, emotional and sexual politics of relationships, peppering the wistful, spirited pop melodies and sinuous R&B; rhythms that are fundamental elements of the Jackson-Jam-Lewis sound with compelling jazz, folk and techno nuances.

Certainly, as a musician Jackson has never seemed more confident or ambitious than she does here, veering smoothly from the cool, breezy hip-hop of the single "Got 'Til It's Gone," which cannily intertwines a Joni Mitchell sample and a seductive guest rap by Q-Tip, to the slamming funk of "Freexone" to the shimmering electronic pop of "Empty."

Jackson's voice remains small and thin, but, characteristically, she turns this liability into an asset, lending a tender minimalism to songs that mightier divas would likely smother, such as the bittersweet ballad "Every Time," or "Together Again," a buoyant ode to a departed loved one. On "What About," she sweetly reminisces about an ex-boyfriend during the gentle verses, then on the choruses dishes out sonic whiplash to the bum.

Incidentally, while exploring the challenges and rewards of intimacy, Jackson drops a few coy hints that nasty boys aren't her only interest. One interlude finds her flirting with a girlfriend, and on a delicate version of the Rod Stewart chestnut "Tonight's the Night," she leaves the original lyrics intact, suggesting that the object of her affection may be female.

More than raising pointed questions about Jackson's personal life, though, such superficially provocative gestures ultimately blend in with the album's larger agenda, which is to encourage more open-minded, free-spirited relationships of all kinds.

Typically, the singer isn't as cerebral or rhetorical in delivering her message as some other artists would be; but with hooks this strong and grooves this delicious, Jackson's authority should be of question to no one.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).

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