‘The Velvet Rope’ Turns 25: Janet Jackson’s Most Liberated Album Reshaped R&B Forever

To celebrate the milestone anniversary of this classic effort, champions how Janet’s sixth album blazed the way for alt-R&B and its artists.

One of the most iconic albums in the Janet Jackson canon was by far the singer’s most daring. By 1997, Janet was 15 years apart from her innocent eponymous album and out of the shadow of her “King of Pop” older brother, Michael Jackson. A chameleon in her own right, Janet continued to evolve, whether coming into her own on 1986 LP Control, pushing social consciousness on 1989’s Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, or expressing her sexuality on 1993’s Janet

By 1998, she was in the throes of a faltering marriage and experienced a long-term bout of depression. Those experiences would be heavy for anyone to deal with, but for Janet, who went inward for her sixth studio album, The Velvet Rope, she would also make space for Black and LGBTQIA listeners to find refuge in her then-most personal effort to date.

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“I was a Janet fan just from [her] videos and ‘Control’ – you couldn't really escape her music during that time,” said music journalist and The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop author Clover Hope. “I remember this album being a different direction for Janet as far as being a little bit more intimate. The sound had a warmer sense, like being in a cozy room with just you and her.”

“She had gone through such a transformation on Janet, where she got all sexy and midriff [baring],” adds music critic Craig Seymour. “There was just this perception that she reached this peak of what it meant to be a pop star. Everybody was so excited about ‘The Velvet Rope’ and then “Got ‘til It’s Gone” came out and she was more on the edgy tip.”

The album had an innovative quality that differentiated from Janet’s previous albums. As co-executive producer Jimmy Jam was an avid fan of Mary J. Blige’s introspective 1994 sophomore album My Life, and he wanted Janet’s next album to replicate Blige’s sincerity.

“Mary J. Blige's album was introspective but it's somebody that’s in so much pain at the moment. It's introspective, very raw, and immediate,” said Seymour. “With ‘The Velvet Rope,’ Janet takes in her feelings of insecurity, but it's less at the moment and more to make a statement about the human condition. [She[ takes the raw introspection of ‘My Life’ and turns it more into a social statement. If you think of ‘Rhythm Nation’ as a manifesto, [then] ‘The Velvet Rope’ is more therapeutic – it's the emotional underpinnings of that.”

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Tapping into her inner world, Janet went deep on The Velvet Rope with the help of longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The lead single “Got ‘til It’s Gone” was partially inspired by J. Dilla’s remix of The Brand New Heavies and Q-Tip collaboration “Sometimes.” Q-Tip featured on “Got ‘til It’s Gone,” a mellow, trip-hop turn in Janet’s usual pop-oriented approach, with a sample of the 1970 folk song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell. The Mark Romanek-directed music video made visual allusions to Afrocentric culture and the South African apartheid, which ended seven years prior. Although the song wasn’t a dance cut like a majority of Janet’s material on her previous albums, “Got ‘til It’s Gone” marked a turn in her career, one where The Velvet Rope would foretell a shift into alternative R&B.

Musically ambitious, The Velvet Rope became a cornerstone of R&B in the late ‘90s along with being Janet’s most culturally significant album to date. Janet’s aesthetic also changed, from vixen-esque to the singer donning bold red ringlets, a septum piercing, tattoos, and wearing dark, grungy attire.

“I know this is controversial, but no one has done red hair better than her,” said Essence editor and culture journalist Brooklyn White. “It looked moisturized and voluminous every time she stepped out. It fit the album era perfectly.”

“‘The Velvet Rope’-era Janet Jackson was the first time I saw an artist being that intentional in the way that they presented themselves in order to present their music ‘appropriately,’” said culture journalist Mel Smith. “She completely undid herself in the eyes of those who knew her from past albums.”

With her spunky appearance came more revealing music. Although it wasn’t a single, titular track “Velvet Rope” echoed the revolutionary sentiments of Rhythm Nation 1814, instead soundtracking Janet’s pursuits of finding self-worth and welcoming listeners to join her.

“Aside from the record's daring production, the song perfectly encapsulates Janet's desire for the album. In the song, she literally invites us into the corridors of her mind, her heart, her desires, her kinks, her fears, and her judgments. She also invites us to do the same with ourselves,” added Smith.

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With 28 tracks, The Velvet Rope was filled with experimental intricacies that centered on sexual desire (“My Need,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Anything”), domestic abuse (“What About”), and longing (“Empty,” “Every Time,” “Rope Burn”). On The Velvet Rope Tour – opened by My Way crooner Usher – Janet would even give a lapdance to a tied-up audience member to the tantalizing “Rope Burn.” The fanfare for the tour was high, as it drew $33 million at the box office, with a Madison Square Garden stop filmed for HBO. For White, the album’s highlight was its third single “I Get Lonely,” a smooth, slow-burning R&B song with a remix that featured quartet Blackstreet, famous for their 1996 hit “No Diggity.”

“It’s sexy, honest, and memorable—the perfect ingredients for a hit. The song also had more of that vulnerability; not just anyone will do it. Janet needed her person, badly,” White said.

The Velvet Rope was also a love letter to Janet’s dedicated queer listeners, solidifying the singer as a gay icon towards the end of the ‘90s. Deep-cut “Free Xone” lambasted homophobia over industrial funk and jazz-centric production. The song also rewrote the timeless "boy meets girl" narratives into one where fluid sexuality and gender switching were praised through her spoken word passages: “One rule: no rules, One love: free zone.” The album’s second single, “Together Again,” was a dance-oriented elegy to a friend who died of AIDS, becoming a signature track to HIV/AIDS activism. The “Together Again (Deeper Remix)” was a seductive take of the song, eschewing sex-negativity associated with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“What’s so special about ‘The Velvet Rope’ [is that] the album stands on its own, but then also you have the videos and the remixes that really speak to the culture of certain communities,” Seymour said. “Knowing that she’s hand-on on everything down to the remixes, it showed a keen sense of wanting to get her message across.”

Setting the template for contemporary alt-R&B and pop artists to express their emotional complexities, like Summer Walker, Mariah the Scientist, Tinashe, and Victoria Monét, The Velvet Rope established the mood for equally melancholic albums, including Beyoncé’s sixth LP Lemonade and Rihanna’s fourth album Rated R. The latter were transitional albums for both acts, but The Velvet Rope was every bit as forward-thinking at the time as they have been influential in the alternative R&B scene of today, sounding both tastefully vintage and exhilaratingly bold.

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“Janet was one of those pop artists who wasn't just going to put out an album and just have it be the music – you knew there would be visuals and a new look – she was reinventing herself with every album,” said Hope. “That’s what I see with the new artists – this atmosphere of just R&B setting the mood. Treating the album as a room itself that a listener can enter and get a piece of you, I do think The Velvet Rope contributed to that concept.”

Boasting eight million copies sold worldwide and a classic status 25 years later, The Velvet Rope was the first Janet album to shed the vocalist’s superstar layers to reveal an unabashed self-portrait. Now eleven albums in, Janet’s remains a staple in R&B and pop, with The Velvet Rope uplifting hot-button topics and a powerful sense of self-worth. Ahead of its time, The Velvet Rope distinguished Janet’s authority in Black music, its bohemian influence spanning across generations. The Velvet Rope deserves replay perfect for self-care days, as alternative R&B contemporaries can credit Janet Jackson for paving a lane for radical brilliance.

Jaelani Turner-Williams is a culture journalist who’s contributed to Billboard, MTV News, Okayplayer, Teen Vogue, and more. Read what’s on her mind on Twitter.

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