When Janet Jackson released her ninth studio album, 20 Y.O., in September of 2006, she was at a strange place in her career. Two years earlier, she was the center of a controversy that was yet another instance of the unending culture wars when conservatives would clutch their collective pearls at the seeming end of moral values. Jackson appeared at the Superbowl XXXVIII halftime show, performing with pop star Justin Timberlake. He reached out to pull at her costume during her performance, revealing her nipple for a few seconds before she quickly covered herself.
Though the nipple slip lasted less than a second, it had a lasting impact on her career, never fully recovering from the bad publicity. The FCC fined CBS for airing the performance, radio and television essentially blackballed Jackson’s work. She was disinvited from the Grammys (particularly sad because she had to bow out of a tribute to her late friend Luther Vandross), and her record sales suffered.
Later, it was revealed that CBS head Les Moonves worked personally to derail Jackson’s career after deeming her response to it as not suitably regretful or apologetic. Though Jackson initially apologized, eventually, she stopped publicly self-flagellating. In an interview, she even told Oprah Winfrey that she regrets the apology, revealing her management pushed her to apologize to protect her upcoming album and single.
According to journalist Yashir Ali, reports had Moonves so incensed at Jackson’s act, believing it a crass grab at attention. Though Timberlake dutifully (and tearfully) apologized to the CBS executive, Jackson was less repentant, which, according to Ali’s report, left Moonves “furious that Jackson didn’t make a similarly contrite apology”. In relation, Moonves reportedly ordered Viacom-owned TV and radio outlets to freeze out any of Jackson’s new music.
Her eighth album, Damita Jo, came out a month after the Superbowl performance. Although it debuted to excellent first-week sales (over 380,000 copies), the album’s sales dropped off after selling just over a million copies due of lack of radio and television support, seemingly instigated by the vengeful Les Moonves. Along with the album’s sleepy sales, none of the singles made the US top 40.
Two years later, Jackson returned with 20 Y.O., which celebrated the 20th anniversary of her 1986 breakthrough album, Control. The album, her last for longtime label Virgin Records, would be another attempt to correct her career and her slumping sales. The publicity for the album referenced her classic Control album, arguably to the detriment of 20 Y.O., as Jackson’s career was in a very different place in 2006 than in 1986. In 1986, Janet Jackson was a young pop star on the verge of megastardom, whilst in 2006, Jackson was a veteran legend struggling to maintain her lofty position as the Queen of Pop.
Because of the baggage that came with the release of 20 Y.O., its merits – and it does have bright spots – have been ignored. Unfortunately, the album faded away from the public conscious because some of the tracks – especially the singles, signaled that Jackson was still quite capable of coming up with some fantastic tunes. Working with her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, she also worked with her then-partner Jermaine Dupri, LRoc, Manuel Seal, the Avila Brothers, and No I.D. Working outside the tight trio of Jackson, Jam, and Lewis sought to modernize her sound and place in the zeitgeist of urban-pop music of 2006. Though Jam & Lewis are brilliant producers who didn’t miss a beat, it was clear that by 2006, they had been in the game for a long time, and it was starting to show in their work.
The Jackson, Jam, Lewis team still had undeniable chemistry, and the best parts of 20 Y.O. demonstrated why they ruled the pop charts for so long. As if to prove that point, they released a beguiling and appealing first single for the album, the mid-tempo “Call on Me”, a duet with rapper Nas. It’s a relatively subtle track that percolated sweetly on a simple chiming synth and an easy, soft beat. It’s a bubbly, sugary confection that should have been a big hit. Though it landed in the top 40 and topped the R&B charts (her 16th number one R&B hit), it was still a soft chart success. It’s a shame really, because the song was just as good as anything popular at the time.
After the moderate success of “Call on Me”, there were higher expectations for “So Excited”, an electrifying dance track that recalled why Janet Jackson should be regarded as the heir to Donna Summer‘s place as the Queen of Disco. Riding on the sampled record scratches and drums of Herbie Hancock‘s classic 1983 hit “Rockit”, the song is reminiscent of Jackson’s best dance singles. The inclusion of the Hancock sample and the droning synths have a fun, retro ’80s vibe that feels like an apt tribute to Control. Meanwhile, rapper Khia’s presence gives the song a contemporary gloss. And as from her work since 1993, Jackson’s murmured, panting vocals are sexually charged and erotic.
Another song that joyfully recalls Jackson’s salad days is the colorful “Daybreak”, which will remind fans of her classic hits like “When I Think of You” or “Escapade”. Jackson’s sweet, candy-coated vocals, layered and sonically multiplied, trill melodically over thick synths that bring to mind late ’80s, early ”90s soul-pop. “Show Me” is another affectionate look at her ’80s days, her pretty coo warbling over a crowd of bouncing synthesizers and gleaming keyboards. ‘”Enjoy” is a joyful, swinging tune that benefits immensely from Jackson’s delightful chirping.
Though Jackson’s strongest suit is dance music, she shines on the luxurious ballad, “Take Care”, which is vintage Jackson, Jam, and Lewis babymaking pop. The song has all the trademarks of a classic Janet Jackson ballad: dreamy, hushed vocals, satiny synths, muted beats, full of atmosphere. It also has a seemingly loose structure that feels like time stops when the music is playing. It also has a gorgeous passage in which Jackson does some of her best singing, when she adds an urgent throb to her voice as she laments, “And I know you can’t be here/that usually don’t faze me/I need you tonight/Boy, it’s driving me crazy/Yearnin’ inside/with this burnin’ desire.”
Unfortunately, there are quite a few misses on 20 Y.O., which relegates the album low on her storied discography. It isn’t that the low points are bad – the crack team behind the record is too good to make bad music. Still, a lot of it feels like rote by-the-numbers dance-pop and contemporary R&B. “Get It Out Me” is a loud, clattering number that is missing a memorable hook or melodies. “Do It 2 Me” is a skittery midtempo number that feels like anything one would hear on radio R&B in 2006. And single “With U” does sport a good vocal performance by Jackson, but it’s squandered on a bland urban-pop tune that melts into a so-so blandness.
Upon its release, 20 Y.O. was met with a lukewarm reception from the critics and audiences. Like its predecessor, the album opened with strong sales but quickly dropped off as lack of support from television and radio meant that the record went unnoticed, something that would seem unthinkable for an artist of Jackson’s caliber. The commercial decline for her work was so steep and abrupt it felt quite shocking, especially since it was only 2001 that she enjoyed a number one hit album, All for You, with its title track becoming one of the biggest hits of her career. In his review of her greatest hits album, Sal Cinquemani of Slant commented, “Except for R.E.M., no other former superstar act has been as prolific with such diminishing commercial and creative returns [as Jackson].” He characterized her career dip as “startlingly abrupt”.
Because of the heavy conditions that weigh the album down, it’s difficult to assess whether it would have been a success had it not been for these outside forces. The critical response was muted. In its negative review, Rolling Stone damned the record as a “transparent stab at continued relevance”. In a mixed review for Entertainment Weekly, Chris Willman found the disc lacking “any standouts likely to be remembered 20 months from now”. IGN opined that the top-shelf production seems to have overwhelmed Jackson, writing, “Where most pop singers of quality usually outshine their production, here the production far outshines Jackson.”
But the album’s failure and singles don’t just speak to a dimming superstar facing post-peak career fortunes. We’re looking at a moment in popular culture when a Black woman was blamed for the controversy’s fallout while a white man was equally complicit. The mainstream press didn’t raise questions of race and misogyny when Jackson was being blamed or when her career was hobbled. In light of Moonves’ sexual harassment charges (which led to his ouster from CBS) and the #MeToo movement, there is a reassessment of the controversy (something that Black journalists and audiences were questioning immediately after the lopsided aftermath of the controversy).
Timberlake, for his part, would admit that Jackson unfairly got the lion’s share of the blame. In February of 2021, in response to the Framing Britney documentary, which shone a harsh – and unforgiving – spotlight on misogyny in the intersection of press and entertainment, he posted a lengthy apology on his Instagram account to both Jackson and Britney Spears, acknowledging that the entertainment industry “is flawed. It sets men, especially white men, up for success. It’s designed this way.” He admitted to his ignorance and his failure in speaking out and being an ally.
After 20 Y.O., Jackson would leave Virgin Records, her label for over a decade (she was at one point, the highest-paid performer in pop music), for a one-album stint at Island with the underperforming Discipline (2008). She then took a long hiatus of seven years – her lengthiest in between studio released – to return with the warmly received Unbreakable, which would become her seventh number one album on the Billboard album charts. Critics cited it as a return to form. No longer housed at a major label, Jackson released the album independently, a noted comment on the state of the music industry in 2015, which has been irrevocably changed through streaming technology.
Retrospective reviews of Jackson’s first post-Superbowl album, Damita Jo, have suggested that it’s a brilliant, though underrated, album, unfairly lost in the noise of the controversy. 20 Y.O. has not received the same kind of historical revision, but that isn’t as important as the revised way society is now looking at the controversy and the unjust way Jackson’s career was mangled in the process.
The album became emblematic of the excesses of sexism, misogyny, and racism, particularly when looking at the reach of powerful, successful white men. Moonves’ meddling in Jackson’s career – as well as his reported botching of Designing Women writer Linda Bloodworthworth-Thomason’s career – was a symptom of a systemic issue of toxic masculinity, power, and privilege. Moonves was eventually toppled, disgraced, and discarded. However, Jackson remains as defiant and creative as ever.