No cover-up for Jackson on the steamy 'Damita Jo'

Janet Jackson

"Damita Jo" (Virgin)

** 1/2

First of all, remember, it's just a CD; you won't see anything.

But don't underestimate our Janet's ability to rise to the occasion. When it comes to aural sex, "Damita Jo" (in stores Tuesday) has moments as explicitly raunchy as any mainstream-aimed album since the prime of Prince. (A clean version of the album will also be available, but in this day and age, who's going to buy a Janet Jackson record for a kid anyway?)

Strutting into the teeth of the crackdown on so-called indecency occasioned by her Super Bowl indiscretion, Jackson has pulled off a pretty neat trick.

Her heavy-breathing pop porn once would have seemed indulgent and gratuitous, but now it has an air of refreshing defiance.

Even if it was created before the current surge of neo-Puritanism, it drops into the debate as a red-hot rallying point for beleaguered hedonists everywhere.

Not that "Damita Jo" is wall-to-wall sex. Its X-rated scenes are nestled in the middle of the uneven hour-plus album, a mish-mash that tries to fuse sweet sentiments with hard-core clips.

It opens with a florid discourse by Jackson, who tremulously pronounces, "We're vulnerable, we're sensitive and we're complicated people too.... So many different characters live within us -- all looking for love."

Pretty goopy, but it gives her something to hang her bustier on, so to speak, providing a premise for the themes of romance and lust that are about to unfold.

Produced mostly by her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the music ranges from generic, assembly-line product to somewhat more inspired commercial pop.

Things tend to sag in the ballads, though "I Want You" has a swooning charm, with a chimes-studded texture that suggests the sweeping light-points of a disco ball. In uptempo gear, the album is often brisk and infectious, from the brittle funk of the opening title song to the Prince-rock of the finale, "Just a Little While."

All this heavy construction is undertaken in the service of one of pop's thinnest, wispiest voices, and although Jackson's lack of vocal presence leaves a void at the heart of "Damita Jo," she's enough of a personality to create a few serviceable personas, from haughty stripper to a wide-eyed kid who loves long walks on the beach.

But it's the pure erotica of "Warmth" (pleasing him) and "Moist" (her turn) that stand out, and she performs with an enthusiastic authority that would deflate any claim of "malfunction."

-- Richard Cromelin

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

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