Spoiler Alert: Despite the title of her latest album, Janet Jackson is not 20 years old.
But even though this youngest sibling of the Jackson family turned a cool 40 last May, her latest album is proof that she has what it takes to compete with today’s younger hip-hop starlets. On the opening track to “20 Years Old,” Janet confides that on past albums she dealt with the heavy stuff — racism, spousal abuse, empowering women — but that this time around, “I wanna keep it light. I don’t wanna be serious. I wanna have fun.” And she accomplishes just that. Nothing on this album is too complex, nothing too experimental or new, but Jackson delivers a handful of playful and bright dance tracks that can only be described as fun.
The album title refers to her age as a solo artist — or more accurately, a star. She seems to have convinced herself that she was musically “born” in 1986, the year she released the smash hit “Control.” This convenient age calculation ignores her first two solo albums, 1982’s self-titled “Janet Jackson” and 1984’s “Dream Street,” neither of which were commercially successful. Fortunately, no knowledge of basic math is needed to churn out pop songs, which she has done rather consistently and adroitly since she made her indelible mark on the R&B scene in the ’80s.
Over the last 20 years, Jackson has transitioned smoothly from a feisty young girl to a mature woman, but the lyrics on this album suggest that she’s still got a sizeable dose of sass. On “So Excited,” this 40-year-old seems to just be reaching her sexual peak as she purrs, “And I’ll open my spot for you/ Anytime you want me to/ So you can/ Act bad/ Don’t hurt me/ Look sexy/ Talk dirty.” And her age falls even further from the spotlight on “Daybreak,” as she conveys an excitement comparable only to a teenage girl at summer camp. She giggles expectantly over sneaking out to spend the night with a boy, waiting to fall into his arms and kiss him.
But the younger image Jackson’s sporting isn’t without its faults. At times, her words are nothing more than trite banter; Jackson wallows in the advice she has to offer on “Enjoy”: “Lose your inhibition let your inspiration/ Set you free.” She falters again on “This Body,” in which she revels in her newly toned physique, but her shouts get a little carried away as her excitement quickly escalates into inflated boasts.
The production on this record also demonstrates the ups and downs of Janet’s fun side. On the whole, her rhythms are catchy and her hooks bouncy. She gets off to a great start with the aptly named and aforementioned “So Excited,” in which her fresh vocals are softly layered over scattered textured beats and fluid synthesized strings. But she makes several aural missteps as well, resulting in tracks that have been over-produced to a nauseatingly plastic sound. In addition, the five “Interludes” scattered through the album include porno chords for a Slow Jams CD.
“20 Years Old” confirms that, even 20 years later, Janet still has the youthful spirit and creative drive necessary to produce a contemporary R&B album. She puts much thought and work into what she does, and it shows. Her songs, though never complex, are always thoughtfully crafted. There is a syncopated flow to the album as a whole, but the repeated pulses do grow tiresome. Despite these hiccups, however, “20 Years Old” is a solid addition to Jackson’s growing repertoire. She may no longer be 30 and flirty, but Jackson still knows how to have fun.