It's hard to beelieve that when "Control" was released at the beginning of 1986 that Janet Jackson was thought of as perhaps one of the least talented of the nine singing Jackson kids. Although she had two previous albums under her belt (none of which was particularly noteworthy) and a long list of TV roles, no one really thought Janet was going to break out of her family's shadow and become popular.
Enter Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Upon being fired from Prince's pet project The Time in 1983, the twosome threw themselves wholeheartedly into producing for artists, enjoying some success with hits from acts like The S.O.S. Band, Cheryl Lynn & Alexandder O' Neal. They were intrigued by the thought of working with the baby Jackson and began working on what would eventually become "Control".
For the then 19-year oldd Janet, moving to Minneapolis to work with Jimmy & Terry was an eye-opener. Fresh from a divorce from James DeBarge and away from her family for the first time, Janet was brought out from the protective Jackson shell and, with the producers' help, transformed herself into a feisty, independent young woman. This self-discovery is all over "Control"-a watershed moment for Black music, Jam & Lewis, female performers, and Janet herself.
At the dawn of 1986, there were very few female artists who were not wearing demure dresses and cooing love songs. The amount of commercially successful "independent" women could be counted on one hand: Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Tina Turner. All of the successful female R&B vocalists (actually there was really only one: Whitney Houston) of the time were quiet storm balladeers. Janet not only opened the door for the legions of women that followed (Paula Abdul, Jody Watley, Karyn White, Pebbles, etc.) she kicked it wide open. "Control" was funky and pop-savvy-a new sound for a new generation-as influential as her brother's own "Thriller".
The songs that Jam, Lewis & Jackson (who receives co-writing credit on nearly every song on the album) created were as funky as the music that they did with their mentor, Prince and The Time, but with an undeniable pop sheen and tons of attitude. Janet immediately asserts her independence on the title track, which kicks off the album. "This is a story about control. My Control. Control of what I say. Control of what I do. And this time I'm gonna do it. My way." Those few words shook off two decades of oppression from "meanest Black man in the world not named Suge Knight or Ike Turner" Joe Jackson. Janet's voice was not-and has never been-great, but it contains enough groove sensibility and ticked-off wariness to carry this album's songs.
Janet not only asserted her independence-she partook in her fair share of male-bashing, which was practically unheard-of among female artists at that time. "What Have You Done For Me Lately", hip shaking groove aside, is noteworthy for Janet totally laying into a layabout boyfriend. "Now it seems your dancin' feet are always on my couch/Good thing I cook or else we'd starve to death...in fashion". "Nasty", despite Janet's awkward Alexis Carrington/Jackee Harry on "227" talking voice, contains a hard industrial-sounding keyboard groove and one of the most quoted lines in pop music history: "No, my first name ain't baby, it's Janet...Miss Jackson if you're nasty!"
On the rest of their album, Janet & company turn out a selection of great dance jams. "When I Think Of You" is completely overplayed, but who can deny the song's memorable melody and gleeful vocal performance from Janet? "The Pleasure Principle" and "You Can Be Mine" are both more aggressive upbeat numbers. The album version of "Principle" is a bit tame compared to the hyper remix featured in the video, but it's an excellent song anyway. Both songs feature killer guitar solos from Jam & Lewis' Time compatriot Jellybean Johnson.
The album ends with what would become a trademark on Janet's albums: the baby-nmakin' ballads. While "Let's Wait Awhile" is a tender ballad about waiting for the right time to make love, "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun) is a dusky ballad notable for Janet moaning in French on the intro and coda of the record
"Control"'s only misstep is the bouncy "He Doesn't Know I'm Alive", on which Janet reverts back to her teenage Valley-Girl act and chases after a guy who she's sure is not even aware of her presence. This is hard to believe after you've heard the hard-bitten "What Have You Done For Me Lately" and "Nasty". This, unironically, is the album's only track not helmed by Jam & Lewis.
While the subject matter throughout "Control" is par for the course now, to have a female singer (particularly a Black female singer) come off this aggressive was definitely a rarity, if not unheard of, in 1986. The fact that it camee from the shy little sister of Michael jackson added to the element of surprise. "Control" kicked off Janet's career as basically the classy Black version of Madonna (and she managed to keep her clothes on, at least through the first part of her career), elevated Jam & Lewis to super-star status as prodducers, and opened up a whole new chapter in pop/R&B/dance music. Everyone from Destiny's Child to Aaliyah to Christina Aguilera owes a HUGE debt to Janet and the barriers that this album broke down. "Control" is nothing short of a classic.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
Key tracks: "Nasty", "The Pleasure Principle", "What Have You Done For Me Lately"