Time Capsule: Janet Jackson, Control

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002, and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at Janet Jackson’s commercial and critical breakthrough, which would catalyze a 15-year run of classic albums that, when it was all said and done, cemented the youngest Jackson child as the family’s most royal and brilliant pop beacon.

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Time Capsule: Janet Jackson, Control

By the time 1986 hit, there was no bigger pop star in history than Michael Jackson. His 1982 album Thriller had spent 37 non-consecutive weeks at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, spawned seven singles including generational tracks like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” and, after Michael moonwalked at the Motown 25 special, was selling a million copies a week (by the end of 1983, 32 million copies were sold). It was an unprecedented and still unparalleled run in the history of popular music, but as time has passed, it’s become increasingly evident that Thriller was not the pinnacle of creativity for the Jackson family—that Michael’s baby sister, Janet, was as talented as her older brother, perhaps even more so.

Janet made her debut two months before Thriller came out, releasing a “bubblegum soul”-style self-titled album through A&M Records. The songs, including singles “Come Give Your Love to Me” and “Say You Do,” were largely written by Angela Winbush and René Moore but failed to make any noise on the Hot 100 chart. Janet would perform on American Bandstand and Soul Train later that year, but Janet Jackson sold 300,000 copies and quickly became consumed by Thriller’s explosive commercial successes. Janet’s next record, Dream Street, was a better turn towards pop music that better mirrored her brother’s style. The LP, produced by Jesse Johnson, Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte and her brother Marlon, peaked at 147 on the Top 200 but none of the singles found much intrigue beyond the R&B chart. It remains the lowest-charting album of her career, and the only record she’s ever made to not have any placements on the Hot 100.

But that all came to an end in February 1986, when Janet and her collaborators—former Prince associates Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and The Time member Monte Moir—released Control, a flash of seismic musical confection. Taking those pop turns from Dream Street and adding elements of R&B, rap, disco, synthesized percussion and funk, Janet Jackson quickly became a show-stopper. It took 20 weeks for the album to top the Billboard 200, but the RIAA would certify the LP Gold by April 1986 and then Platinum just two months later. Like Thriller, the momentum of Control was furthered by seven singles, including “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “When I Think of You” and the title-track all released in succession. It’s a run that’s stronger than Michael’s was, given that his duet with Paul McCartney on “The Girl is Mine” might be one of the worst lead singles that an all-time great album has ever had.

But what’s unique about Control is that it’s only a drop in the bucket of how incredible of a pop star Janet Jackson was and still is. It kicked off a run of five classic albums in a row, released between 1986 and 2001. Few musicians have ever had such a consequential 15-year run, and it can all be traced back to the very first words uttered on “Control”: “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.” Janet makes her mission known from the jump; Control is not going to be a conventional pop record about chasing lovers and dancing. And she stayed true to her word, as Control is an autobiographical powerhouse triumphant in ways that most albums of its era aren’t. Janet’s recent marriage to James DeBarge had been annulled, she quit doing business with her family (especially her father, Joseph) and took on John McClain as her manager. To say it’s a brilliant mark of empowerment would be an understatement; to try and get to the root of just how game-changing Control was for Black women (especially Black women in music) would take more than just one Time Capsule review.

Janet was just 20 when Control hit the shelves. In the previous years, she fought with her father over the direction of her career: She wanted to go to college but, under the thumb of Joseph’s management, made Janet Jackson and continued to act on the NBC show Fame. By the tme she was ready to make her third album, Janet quit working with her father and pointed her compass at wanting to put out music that appealed first and foremost to Black Americans. “We wanted to do an album that would be in every Black home in America,” Jam told Rolling Stone. “We were going for the Black album of all time.” While the music of Control sounds like this colossal change of pace from Janet’s previous releases, it was the product of a meticulous, intentional farming of chemistry between her, Jam, Lewis and Moir. “We got into her head,” Lewis said. “We saw what she was capable of, what she wanted to say, where she wanted to be, what she wanted to be. We put together some songs to fit her as we saw her, as she revealed herself to us. It was as simple as that.”

And what Janet revealed herself to be to her producers was a star. Her voice shed the teenage sensibilities that made her previous records so endearing; she came to Control adorned with the vocal cords of a lit-from-within Phoenix. Any conversations around her nepo-sibling ties to Michael fell into extreme quiet, as Janet makes her presence known on “Control”: “When I was 17, I did what people told me,” she sings. “I did what my father said, and let my mother mold me. But that was long ago, I’m in control.” It’s a diss track that never lets its punches overshadow the freedom bubbling over at its center. With a funk instrumental built upwards off of a drum machine backbeat, “Control” finds Janet switching between a whisper vocal and falsetto harmonizations. “Got my own mind, I wanna make my own decisions,” she sings during the bridge. “When it has to do with my life, my life, I wanna be the one in control.” The repetition of that word—“control”—reverberates, with Janet’s sugar-sweet and sharp operatics making every syllable linger and gut you quick. Like a prizefighter with his opponent on the ropes, Janet wastes no time hurling jabs at the people who’ve hurt her most—namely Joseph Jackson.

“Give me a beat!” Janet cries out moments later, during the opening seconds of “Nasty.” A Top 5 hit on the Hot 100, “Nasty” quickly became Janet’s best song ever upon its release in April 1986. With an instrumental built on sampling and the sound factory of his Ensoniq Mirage keyboard—its unorthodox triple-swing beat was a melodic, pivotal entry into a burgeoning new jack swing era of music. On the track, Janet sings autobiographically about confronting abusive men. “The danger hit home when a couple of guys started stalking me on the street,” she said. “They were emotionally abusive. Sexually threatening. Instead of running to Jimmy or Terry for protection, I took a stand. I backed them down.” And thus, the work reflects that self-preservation—but Janet dresses it up like any pop star would, with benchmark lyrics and an energetic approach that finds her curving her own confrontational approach with undercuts of tenderness. “I could learn to like this,” she sings. “Listen up!”

“Nasty” features the greatest bridge in all of 1980s pop music: “I’m not a prude, I just want some respect. So, close the door if you want me to respond. ‘Cause privacy is my middle name, my last name is control. No, my first name ain’t baby. It’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” That last line, in particular, has been passed around in popular culture in the years since, namely when Hayley Williams introduces herself at Paramore shows. But “Nasty” is the kind of track that, in retrospect, is where Janet Jackson became Janet Jackson—completely severed from the legacy of her brothers, now a speeding bullet aimed at her own bout with musical immortality. Few pop musicians of Janet’s generation could deliver such a hard-nosed, sassy tune that, at the same time, is danceable, spit-in-your-face and still influential over 35 years later.

“What Have You Done for Me Lately” germinated from the same act of self-preservation as “Nasty,” though its instrumental is, as Billboard once put it, “taunting” and “tigerish.” But, the track jolts away from the funk of “Nasty” and adopts a dance-pop style that mirrors some of the synthesizer work on Prince’s 1999. Given that the album was recorded at Flyte Tyme in Minneapolis, and Jam and Lewis’ collaborative history with the Purple One, such a distinction just makes sense—though Control doesn’t ever rest on those similarities, flourishing because it sounds unequivocally like Janet Jackson. The keys on “What Have You Done for Me Lately” are light, as if Jam and Lewis were each banging on metallic sheets with one hand and playing a piano with the other. And again, Janet delivers some absolute daggers in her lyricism. “You seem to think you’re God’s gift to this Earth,” she sings, her lilt taking a harmonic, sweetened turn. “I’m telling you, no way, you ought to be thankful for the little things. But little things are all you seem to give.” The track then nosedives into a glitchy, looping synth outro where Janet repeats “What have you done for me lately?” over and over for nearly two minutes.

What often sets Control apart from the albums being released by Janet’s contemporaries is that a lot of these tracks run longer than a typical pop song of the time would (many of them eclipsing the four-minute mark). “Control” is nearly six minutes long, “What Have You Done for Me Lately” clocks in at five minutes. Non-single standout “You Can Be Mine” is over five minutes long and stirs in hues of catchiness, though it can sometimes get glossed over in the name of more marquee hits. But “You Can Be Mine” is an impressive example of Janet’s crossover appeal. It features guitar work from Jellybean Johnson that, cover your ears, rivals that of Eddie Van Halen’s on Michael’s “Beat It”—though it arrives here as far more subdued and restrained, serving the song’s arrangement far more than the architects’ dreams of finesse. “The Pleasure Principle” would find some successes commercially, hitting #14 on the Hot 100 over a year after Control was released. It’s here that Janet muses about how materialism can upend a romance, alludes to Joni Mitchell and rubs up against bustling, crystalline synths, singing that “it’s true you want to build your life on guarantees. Hey, take a ride in a big yellow taxi. I’m not here to feed your insecurities, I wanted you to love me.”

Control’s back-half doesn’t pack the same hit-making gusto as side one, but that’s not to say that it isn’t anything but great. Where Janet reveled in her own soon-to-come breakout on “Control,” “Nasty” and “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” songs like “Let’s Wait Awhile” and “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” are ballads that let her flex her vocal muscles more than the hits could. Janet wrote “Let’s Wait Awhile” based on conversations that Melanie Andrews had had with her first love about not rushing into sex, about waiting for the time to be right. “When we get to know each other and we’re both feeling much stronger,” Janet sings, “then let’s try to talk it over.” The song would become a #2 hit on the Hot 100, becoming pop gold that rivaled that of something like “When I Think of You”—achieving such mountain-moving success by being downright catchy and urgent, as the song’s message was meant to coincide with the AIDS epidemic and raise awareness about STDs. “I promise, I’ll be worth the wait,” Janet saunters. On the inverse, few songs are as effortlessly sexy as “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun),” as Janet moans and whispers through the track while a plucked 12-string acoustic guitar unfurls beside her. The track was Control’s seventh and final single, released only for airplay in the United States and failing to make much commercial noise in England or Ireland. It’s a smooth, slow-burn album closer, with a style of soul and jazz fusion that holds contemporary longevity—as you can find similar patterns in the work of someone like Kali Uchis in 2024.

But the song that, above all, cements Control’s timelessness is “When I Think of You”—the third single which would become Janet’s first-ever #1 hit (and it made Janet and Michael the only sibling duo to both have solo #1 hits on the Hot 100). It’s here that Janet puts her teenage ambitions in the rearview, embracing the not yet well-worn tropes of desire in pop music. Where much of Control finds her embracing an independent life, Janet lets down her guard for a moment on “When I Think of You,” allowing herself to relish the joys of a bubbling romance—or, at the very least, a crush that’s worth daydreaming about. “I just get more attached to you when you hold me in your arms and squeeze me and you leave me, making me blue,” she sings. “It’s when I think of you, baby, nothing else seems to matter.” With synthesizers that shout like horn arrangements and a topline of Janet’s infectious singing, “When I Think of You” is a perfect storm. It’s precise, joyous and full of agency. In Janet Jackson’s world, a healthy relationship can set you free. Written after her annulment with DeBarge, “When I Think of You” demands that affection not be reductive after heartbreak. Janet’s boundaries become plausible and worth similarly adopting. You can be hot and crushing and still in control of the autonomy that sets you apart from those you wish to love.

Control not only redefined Janet Jackson the pop star, but it redefined the kind of personal liberation that her contemporaries, like Madonna, had been pushing in their work around the same time. What sets Control apart, however, is that it was made with Black people in mind and not the accessibility of the pop charts. Of course, the hits did follow and the album went Platinum eight times across three different countries. But, through spoken-word, rap-singing, ad-libs and aglow vocalizations, Janet Jackson changed the world with her third record. Few LPs of the 1980s—or in the history of pop music altogether—sound so fully-realized, brilliant and one-of-a-kind.

On Control, Janet wants you to know that you can fall in love and fuck on your own terms, you can push back against abusive men. You can pick who is most deserving of your grace and who belongs in your orbit. Control is exactly what the title says: It is not just a nurturing of identity, it’s a demand to never lose it ever again. And to think: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis originally made much of the arrangements for this album for Sharon Bryant, who decided they were too rambunctious for her to sing over. But Control sounds better as an in-real-time portrait of a 20-year-old pop starlet picking up the torch of her brother’s generational heroism and scorching every remaining part of the Earth with it. The only thing is: That torch has always burned brighter in Janet’s hands than it ever did in Michael’s.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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