What has Janet Jackson done for us lately? Well, let’s see. Aside from firing the imaginations of S&M enthusiasts with her bondage and discipline-themed 1997 album The Velvet Rope (”been there, done that,” we imagine Madonna sniffed), prancing around as a titanium-covered vixen in an insanely high-tech Busta Rhymes video, and demonstrating her apparent prescience by duetting on a song with Shaggy before he was Shaggy!, she has aged enough so that the ”diva” tag that gets hung on just about every female pop singer these days actually seems to fit. What else? Oh, yeah — to her credit, she continues to bear the cross of being Michael Jackson’s blood relation with supreme good grace.
All of which brings us back to our original question, which we’ll state another way: Is there any reason to care about Jackson’s new album, All for You? The answer is a qualified ”sure.” Her longtime producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, are again doing the honors, and they coat All for You in their trademark voluptuous sound, sexy and big and brimming with left-field surprises. The album opens with a brief spoken intro that finds Jackson doing a dead-on Fran Drescher impression, then launches into the piston-like rhythms of ”You Ain’t Right,” drum machines and synths slapping you in the face and making you like it while Janet lashes out at a louse. So far so good.
The title track recalls the old McFadden & Whitehead positivity anthem ”Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” recasting it as chirpy computer pop overlaid with a silky Jackson vocal. It’s one of several nods to the ’70s that will amuse old-schoolers and pass over the heads of youngsters. How many 16-year-olds will recognize that ”Someone to Call My Lover” is built around a guitar motif from America’s 1972 Valium-folk hit ”Ventura Highway”? Or catch the lyrical references to the Five Stairsteps’ great ”Ooh Child” in ”Truth”?
But the most audacious ’70s lift has to be ”Son of a Gun,” Jackson’s duet with Carly Simon. A revamped version of Simon’s 1972 classic ”You’re So Vain,” with updated tough-mama lyrics, it seems downright perverse, with Jackson repeatedly exhorting Simon to let it all hang out: ”You tell ‘em, Carly.” And Carly certainly does, rapping about her spiritual bond with Jackson: ”Janet and me, thick as thieves/Never met yet, but I’ll venture a bet/There’s a common threat to our common dream.” Never met yet? Hmmm. We can only conclude that the ”common threat” was a delayed FedEx delivery of the tapes containing Simon’s vocals.
Elsewhere, Jackson flaunts her sexuality in a most awesome manner. On ”China Love,” she rhapsodizes about ”the lust within my dreams” in a way that’s guaranteed to inspire lustful dreams among some listeners. ”Love Scene (Ooh Baby)” offsets a vaguely sinister groove with her delicious Smokey Robinson-like falsetto to exquisitely carnal effect. And ”Would You Mind” has her running down a graphic list of her myriad sexual desires (which begins with ”I just wanna kiss you” and ends with — er, never mind), spicing things up even more with some of that Donna Summer-type orgasmic breathing. Of all the erotically charged tracks here — and there are quite a few — this one’s most likely to get the thumbs-up from the Lap Dancers’ League.
The album is not without filler. ”Feels So Right” and ”Doesn’t Really Matter” (boy, that title fits) are essentially competent hack-pop — think Whitney Houston’s ”I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Yet at times All for You brings you up short, as on the stunning ”Trust a Try.” Coproduced by hip-hop heavy Rockwilder, it’s a big, crazy-quilt production that includes a string section, a refrain straight out of some imaginary Broadway musical, and a guitar solo by David Barry that sounds like Eddie Van Halen making his Vegas debut. The resulting track is within spitting distance of the avant-garde, and makes you wish Jackson would record an entire album of this sort of thing.
Despite a few missteps, All for You is about as good as modern diva-pop gets, with a higher ratio of worthy-to-mediocre songs than might be expected. Granted, that’s not saying much. But it adds up to a lot more than most female singers have done for us lately.