Janet Jackson's sixth album is like a talky art-house film by a Hollywood icon best known for blockbusters. Introspective, intimate and finely-detailed, 1997's The Velvet Rope broke from the brash chart-minded pop of her previous blockbusters and only sold half as much as 1993's janet. Of course, this means it still generated more than 3 million copies domestically and 10 million internationally, making it the most popular album ever to take on sadomasochism ("Rope Burn"), homophobia ("Free Xone"), lesbian sex (her bold and arguably superior cover of Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night"), and the losses incurred by AIDS (the chart-topping international smash "Together Again"). It's also one of the very best soul albums of the '90s. If Jackson's most consistently thrilling disc isn't her '86 breakthrough Control, then it's surely this.
She may be the Jackson clan superstar with the least amount of lung power, but she's always been the one to take the biggest artistic risks, and here she fulfilled the first requirement in her unprecedented $80 million record contract with a 75-minute autobiographical opus that freely acknowledges and tackles the depression she struggled with during its creation. On one level, The Velvet Rope is a singer-songwriter album that acknowledges its navel-gazing by featuring in the lead single "Got 'til It's Gone" a fat, prominent sample from "Big Yellow Taxi" that prompts rapper Q-Tip to repeat the unexpected but indisputable line, "Joni Mitchell never lies." On another level, it's a genre-sweeping R&B survey that draws freely from house music, drum 'n' bass, hip-hop, rock and classic funk. And thirdly, it's a sociologically minded record in the tradition of Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On that pushes the boundaries of African-American culture by going exactly to those places black mainstream artists ordinarily keep in the closet. She may have struggled with her own personal shackles while making The Velvet Rope, but Jackson has never sounded freer.