Usher's Confessions of Sexual Prowess Hovers Near The Charts' Tops, but the Naughty Janet Jackson Offers More Sexual Intimacy on Damita Jo
The surprising thing about Janet Jackson's Super Bowl striptease was how frankly public a display of her sexuality it was. (Well, technically, the surprising thing was that she revealed a sun-shaped medallion affixed to her nipple.) On the albums she's made since hanging up the military wear she donned for 1989's Rhythm Nation 1814--'93's janet., '97's The Velvet Rope, and 2001's All for You (all on Virgin Records)--Jackson has created an intimate, intricate world of soft-pedaled sexuality, of multitracked "oohs" and "aahs" and luscious, blanketed beats carefully engineered to ruffle bed sheets.
Think of it as an Epcot Center of the carnal. You enter her music like a curious but sympathetic tourist, hungry for education, and are made to feel welcome in this temporary home; you gawk a little, but since Jackson sings so softly and includes a zillion spoken interludes, you engage with the scenery, too. In contrast, the aesthetic fumble of Nipplegate was a Six Flags experience: an instant thrill in which we played a purely voyeuristic part.
Damita Jo, Jackson's eighth album, feels like a welcome retreat back into the singer's glass-walled boudoir. It's plenty raunchy. In "Moist" she hopes "you like drowning in" her "overflowing," "afterglowing" "ocean," and "Strawberry Bounce" instructs a lover to "gyrate then spin it like a yo-yo, slap the back and jiggle it like Jell-O." And the album's songs aren't any more moralistic than those by the frequently philandering male R&B stars who get away with exposing their nipples all the time. In "Thinkin' Bout My Ex" Jackson knows "'sorry' doesn't mend your broken heart," but goes ahead and holds Mr. Second Place tight at night while picturing Mr. First Place's face in his stead. This culpability is crucial, since proof of Jackson's humanity is more heartening, even when it's as tacky as that boob armor or the nonmetaphors in "All Nite (Don't Stop)."
Yet, despite the fact that it's her prerogative to have it that way, the album's lust doesn't come without love. Damita might be the most sonically sumptuous album Jackson has made; nearly every song is an eiderdown explosion of finely finessed sound. As usual, the music urges you to make yourself comfortable. "My Baby," a Kanye West production, floats on a bed of gently plucked acoustic guitar and West's trademark shuffling percussion; Jackson's chorus, delivered in a sotto voce purr that forces you to lean in to catch it, would be defiant if it weren't so reassuring: "Don't matter what they say, baby," she sings, "They just don't know my baby." West also handles "I Want You," a luscious slow jam built atop an interpolation of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "(They Long to Be) Close to You"; the track shimmers with the sweet lovesickness Karen Carpenter had to fight through a scrim of suburban sang-froid to express.
Longtime Jackson enablers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis make their presence known, too, in the subdued "Spending Time With You," whose sparkly chorus shimmies out of a rubber-bass verse, and "R&B Junkie," a blatant bit of old-school roller-rink ambrosia with enough positive vibe to shame Michael Powell into early retirement. Scott Storch, a gifted producer who's worked on records by fellow missundaztood females Christina Aguilera and Pink, gives "Island Life" a tasty, bass-heavy throb.
But though all these men help Jackson pitch her woo, it's ultimately the singer's show. So Jackson layers each of Damita's cuts (there are 22, including interludes) with breathy harmonies, building in little countermelodies, overdubbing nonverbal asides you probably won't catch until the 40th listen. It's the technique that gives Jackson's music its plush romance, what makes even a relatively raw number like "Sexhibition" feel like a private moment between you and the owner of history's most downloaded breast.
As one of those frequently philandering male R&B stars who gets away with exposing his nipples all the time, Usher doesn't need that intimacy as much as Jackson: His thing is conquest, a scorched-earth sexual prowess that, without public approbation, is just future masturbation fodder. "Yeah!," the hit Lil Jon-produced single from Confessions, Usher's fourth studio album, is the musical equivalent of a locker-room pump-up: a thrilling, strangely terrifying rush of strobe-light synth stabs and denatured flute trills, over which Usher takes up with a dance-floor diva, despite the fact that "her and my girl used to be the best of homies."
It isn't the last time he tempts his girl's wrath. In the remarkable title track Usher owns up to impregnating his "chick on the side," telling his chick not on the side how hard it is to do what he's doing, and that hopefully she "can accept the fact that I'm man enough to tell you this." (How much this story lines up with Usher's real-life breakup with TLC's Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas depends on whose publicist you talk to. But let's just say that if it's a fabrication Usher has quite an eye for detail.) "Superstar" is interesting, supposedly a bit of role-playing in which Usher describes the thrill of meeting a superstar (Chilli?). "Give me your autograph," he begs his obsession, "Sign it right here on my heart." Yet it's unconvincing that he's not singing about himself from the perspective of one of his millions of female fans.
In all these tunes Usher accesses the familiarity of pillow talk, but, unlike Jackson, he doesn't seem interested in real intimacy. Even when he asks for forgiveness, he does it as an ambassador of his gender, channeling the first-person "I" into the shopworn characters that populate hundreds of other R&B songs. There's a glum boys-will-be-boys resignation in a track even as marvelously realized as "Simple Things," where Usher tells a friend, "You hear her talking but don't hear what she said," over Jam and Lewis' irresistible soft-focus funk; after dispensing his hard-won advice he tells his buddy to "play on, playa." He's after bedroom sensitivity without admitting that he's a player. If Jackson will be yours for life, Usher can only give you tonight.
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