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Naked soul
Janet bares more than breast on Damita Jo
BY MICHAEL FREEDBERG

Damita Jo (Virgin) is the quietest CD Janet Jackson has ever recorded. Gone are the Amazonian shouts and kick-your-butt themes of Control; gone, too, the whiplash, song-and-dance Bruce LeeĖisms of Rhythm Nation. Here, in a CD that bears her own middle name (which I suspect few fans were aware of), thereís a side of herself that she says, in one lyric, "I donít hide . . . but I donít show." This side of Jackson sings so close to you that thereís nowhere to hide. She doesnít leave herself much room to hide either. She sings so softly that you hear ó almost feel the grains of ó every nuance of her soprano. She sings with a seeming indifference to her accompaniment; in the slow, intimate "Looking for Love," "Spending Time with You," "Magic Hour," and "Island Life," the music barely affects her singing.

Damita Jo acts up more energetically in up-tempo tracks ó "Sexhibition," "My Baby," and "All Nite (Donít Stop)," a song whose every thump, soar, and "oooh" honors David Moralesís house-music mix style without ever interfering with, much less overpowering, Jacksonís vocal. Yet the quiet, understated, almost affectless Jackson sings with more conviction than when she was bragging, dissing, and gyroscoping. In the wake of her Super Bowl fiasco, she seems to have discovered that less is indeed more, especially if you have something to say. Jackson has. She wrote all of Damita Joís lyrics (the music was composed and arranged by the same Jam and Lewis team who helped create her earlier successes). She makes her points in her own words, and she sings the songs in her own way.

Reaching the thirtysomething years, after a lifetime on stage, Jackson now has some perspective on sex ("Sexhibition," "Moist"), dancing ("R&B Junkie"), breaking up to make up ("Like You Donít Love Me," "It All Comes Down to Love"), and aftereffects ("Thinkiní Bout My Ex"). In the past, she struggled not to sound (or move) like her brother Michael. Here sheís shaken off his presence entirely. None of Damita Joís 22 tracks has rhythms that resemble the Jackson Fiveís work, or Michaelís; and hardly any of her 22 vocal performances reflect Michaelís howl, his screech, or his lullaby. The only reference to family comes in the title song, in which she reminisces about being called upon, upbraided, and, most probably, overborne by her mother ó "Ooooh! Iíll tell your daddy," Janet sings in a down-home voice that must be an imitation of her motherís.

Itís hard to find in American soul music a parallel to the whispery intensity of these vocals, the absence of melisma, the concentration on text, all of it completely unlike the ferocity of Beyoncé, the riffing of Erykah Badu, the melisma of Mary J. Blige. In French variété, however, one hears as a matter of course the thoughtfulness, the hush, the pianissimo force that Jackson now commands. As she says in "The One," a brief (1:02) Europhonic interlude, "The confusion lives . . . the contradictions mount." (She restates this sentiment even more profoundly in "Lookiní for Love," the bothered monologue that opens the CD.)

Still, Damita Jo isnít just an American version of a variété album. Jacksonís advanced, club kidís taste in rhythms, for example, runs to bossa nova ("Slolove"), old-school new jill ("R&B Junkie"), mash-up ("Strawberry Bounce"), and, in "All Nite (Donít Stop)," house music, all of which youíll hear in a Milan-made dance mix, and perhaps on a Paris lounge-house track, but not very often in variété. Given the icy cool of Janetís soprano, her teasing attitude to lovemaking, the cuteness of her asides ("Iíd like to make it, make it, yes, make it . . . with a motherfucker like you," from "Strawberry Bounce"), and the occasional burst of Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar ("A Little While" and the intro to "All Nite"), you could imagine her taking the stage with a riot grrrl act like Trash Palace, Ginger Ale, or Le Tigre. Not that these acts would welcome a singer as versatile as sheís now become. In Damita Jo, she shows not one side but several. She examines and speaks up about her life, her desires, her disappointments, her sense of wonder and movement, her peculiar sense of fun. In the darkness, she smiles; in the sunlit songs, she grimaces. Prepare to be surprised. You might even like it.


Issue Date: May 14 - 20, 2004
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