Like serialized television and comic-book movies, R&B is in the midst of a golden age. As ambivalent as I am about Beyoncé’s work, her influence cannot be overstated, and her sequined coattails have been long enough to support an incredible wave of exceptionally provocative albums from next-in-line voices both female (Jhené Aiko, FKA Twigs, Tinashe) and male (Frank Ocean, Miguel, the Weeknd).
The roots of this form of modern R&B can be traced back to Janet Jackson’s landmark album Rhythm Nation 1814, which turns 25 years old today. Though it’s a quarter century old, Rhythm Nation has barely aged—it sounds as rich and vital as it did when it was first released, and stylistically as contemporary as anything on the Billboard charts.
Jackson was coming off a huge run with her breakthrough 1986 album Control, which was her first collaboration with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Her first two releases, crafted under the watchful eye of her father, Joe, were mildly popular mostly because they carried the Jackson name, but a frustrated Janet fired her dad going into the creation of the aptly-titled Control.
The emancipation paid off, as Control spawned a huge parade of hit singles, including the controversial and self-possessed anthems “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Nasty.” The videos from Control were all over MTV, and Janet established herself as an instantly dominant pop figure talked about in the same sentences as Madonna and her older brother Michael.
Under normal circumstances, following up a sexy singularity like Control with an album focusing on social consciousness and change could have been disastrous, but Rhythm Nation 1814 is a glorious exception. Again built around the militant funk of Jam & Lewis, the album created a parallel-universe utopia with, as Janet intoned, ”no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color lines.”
That comes from the first track “Interlude: Pledge,” one of several breaks between songs that tie together the Rhythm Nation narrative. Janet’s vision of cultural harmony was admittedly naive, but an artist of her caliber hadn’t taken as big and bold a chance since Stevie Wonder went on his legendary run in the early ’70s with classics like Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life. And her concerns have remained timeless, sadly: the conclusion of the somebody-think-of-the-children ballad “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” includes audio of a news report about a school shooting.
Janet never had much of a voice, technically, but she was able to do a lot with it when paired with Jam & Lewis’ genre-hopping mix of muscular funk, frothy pop, and slick rock. Control was one of the seminal New Jack Swing albums, and Rhythm Nation doubles down on that fusion. But there are also elements of many more pop, R&B, and hip-hop movements to come: “Alright,” with its Heavy D guest rap, has the same kind of hip-hop soul kick that pre-dates Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411?, while the ebullient smash single “Escapade” sounds like a building block for the turn-of-the-century teen pop craze.
Any pop star who has borrowed the swagger and crunch from hair metal—Rihanna, Pink, Christina Aguilera—owes something to “Black Cat.” Every Gwen Stefani song is essentially “Miss You Much.” And title track “Rhythm Nation” remains an incredibly kinetic workout that provided the DNA for everything from Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” to the bulk of Beyoncé’s 4.
But to reduce Rhythm Nation to merely a series of songs is to undersell just how gigantic its cultural impact was. The album was accompanied by a half-hour film project Rhythm Nation 1814 Film, which aired on MTV and married a story about two would-be musicians derailed by drug use with performances of a handful of songs from the album. Janet’s leather-and-jackboot dystopian style created a huge fashion phenomenon, and her Rhythm Nation World Tour was a monumental success both artistically and commercially.
It all helped cement Rhythm Nation as a classic – and was born out in its sales figures. Though it debuted at an underwhelming number 28 on the Billboard 200, the album steadily grew on the back of its hit singles, provocative videos, and the head-turning spectacle of her live show (which non-attendees got a taste of at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards when she performed “Black Cat”). It went double platinum by the end of 1989, and went on to become the best-selling album of 1990, eventually sending seven singles to the top five, including four number ones. All told, Rhythm Nation 1814 has sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide.
By the time all the singles were out and the tour was complete, Janet had spent the better part of three years promoting Rhythm Nation 1814. Her next album, 1993’s janet., was an even bigger juggernaut, bringing another string of huge radio and MTV hits (including “If,” “That’s the Way Love Goes,” and “Any Time, Any Place,” which Kendrick Lamar immortalized when he sampled it for his track “Poetic Justice”) and the pre-Internet meme of somebody holding your boobs for you. (The image originally appeared on the deluxe edition of the album but was probably more popular as a Rolling Stone cover; it was later aped by the likes of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, South Park, Negativeland, Kathy Griffin, and Psych.)
Janet has said that she put “1814” in the title of Rhythm Nation 1814 because that was the year that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written, and she thought of the music from Rhythm Nation as a new national anthem for what she saw as an idealized uprising in youth culture that would put away drugs and prejudice in favor of education and dancing.
While Rhythm Nation 1814 didn’t inspire that kind of revolution, it was its own movement: A lot of artists had gone genre-hopping and developed their own style and taken on social causes in the form of pop music, but few—before or since—have done it as successfully as Janet Jackson did on Rhythm Nation 1814. And while the world may not be rid of racism or violence, we’re still dancing.