30 years ago, Janet Jackson created one of the most influential projects in pop music history—intermixing socially conscious themes through the lense of dance. Jackson’s fourth studio album “Rhythm Nation 1814” was released on Sept. 19, 1989 and further elevated her wide-ranging conceptual artistry. After the success of her breakthrough album “Control” in 1986, Jackson teamed up with Minneapolis producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis once again—breaking away from the doubtful chatter of outside voices and curating a groundbreaking project that continues to hold relevance.
Taking ownership of her own narrative and tapping into themes of self-realization, “Control” was the defining project that launched Jackson’s career to new heights. Understandably, her label at the time wanted to keep the momentum going, which would mean sticking to the formula and having Jackson create a “Control II.” Jackson, Jam and Lewis weren’t too keen on the idea—wanting something fresh and even more impactful than the last project.
Recognizing her growing influence at only 23 years old, Jackson felt she had the responsibility to touch on subjects bigger than herself. Much like Marvin Gaye and Joni Mitchell’s ability to articulate the happenings of the world in the 1970s, she wanted to create her own concept album—speaking to her younger audience. Jackson, Jam and Lewis would switch back and forth between MTV, CNN and BET during the beginning stages of the recording process. Watching events depicting school shootings, violence, homelessness and racism started to impact them greatly—transforming the notion of making a typical record and kickstarting the idea that would soon become the center of it all.
The concept of “Rhythm Nation” was to address the world’s issues head on through the powerful avenues of dance, music and poetry. The usage of the number “1814” represented the year “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written. Later, it was discovered that “R” was the 18th letter of the alphabet and “N” was the 14th letter of the alphabet—showing that this connection was simply destined to happen.
When sequencing the album, Jackson insisted on audiences grasping the overall message of the album immediately instead of leaning toward the typical catchy single. The title track jumps at you right away with its hard-hitting beat and urgent lyrics. Encouraging listeners to take action, Jackson sings: “Join voices in protest to social injustice/A generation full of courage, come forth with me.”
Included in her 30-minute short film for the project, the “Rhythm Nation” video sees her and an army of dancers all sporting military gear. Jackson’s baseball cap and ponytail look was effortless, edgy and forever the coolest—let’s not forget her signature key earring. The sharp and intricate dance sequence—choreographed by Anthony Thomas—was perfectly executed and truly coincided with the message of unity. Although Jackson is front and center, she makes sure that the dancers around her are just as important to the translation of the song’s meaning.
This was the first album of Jackson’s to incorporate interludes, which make each track fall into one another cohesively. The flipping of channels ranging from cartoons to different news stations discussing social issues is heard right before “State of the World.” Like the interlude, the song illustrates Jackson’s concerns with issues surrounding homelessness and violence as she sings, “There’s got to be a better way.”
“The Knowledge” is one of the most dynamic and substantial tracks in Jackson’s entire catalog. Drastically different from the groove and attitude of her previous album, the album’s intention of being more upfront and direct is emulated through the industrial like sound. The song focuses on the importance of education and teaching our children to stand up against the prevalence of issues like prejudice, ignorance and bigotry. Jackson’s superstar brother Michael often praised the track—even sampling its percussive elements for their 1995 duet “Scream.”
After “The Knowledge,” Jackson says, “Get the point? Good, let’s dance.”
Hoping that the listeners comprehended all she had to say in the first three songs, Jackson is now ready to transition to the irresistible dance track “Miss You Much.” Traces of the video’s ending chair routine are seen in Britney Spears’ “Stronger” video along with the choreography for Beyoncé and Lady Gaga’s duet “Video Phone”—proving to be one of the most noteworthy dance sequences in pop music.
The track “Escapade” is one of her happiest singles—incorporating the classic themes of letting go of your troubles and going on an adventure. The mini shout out to Minneapolis—where Jackson recorded the album—is a cute nod to the city that shaped her musical journey. Within the similar category, the ease of “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” is a refreshing break from the intensity of the first half of the album. Directed by the legendary fashion photographer Herb Ritts, the gorgeous and sensual video hinted toward the future love-centered themes of 1993’s “janet.”
The gritty, arena rock of “Black Cat” is a complete departure from her classic dance-pop sound. Written and produced by Jackson along with Jellybean Johnson, the song was Grammy nominated for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance—making her the only artist to be nominated in five different genres. As lush and angelic her classic vocal stylings are for songs like “Lonely” and “Come Back to Me,” “Black Cat” solidifies her fearlessness and versatility.
Besides the fact that “Rhythm Nation” is still the only album to garner seven singles in the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 and is recognized as the most successful debut tour of all time, what is most impressive is how applicable it continues to be in the times we are in today. The ballad “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make)” abruptly ends with sounds of gunshots and children screaming—a harsh reality we are still struggling to mend.
Being one of the main socially conscious pop albums of the era, many elements in the way Jackson executed her vision still carries on in today’s music. From the detailed visual expressions to the astounding production stylings of Jam and Lewis, “Rhythm Nation” continues to inspire artists to envision the music they create as a vehicle to open minds and keep the conversation going.
Rylee Jackson can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @rybyjackson.