Janet Jackson's last album opened with a declaration of independence: "This is a story about control," she announced. "My control." Three years later, her follow-up casts a wider net, moving from personal freedom to more universal concerns — injustice, illiteracy, crime, drugs — without missing a beat. Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation (a title that puts ego before social conscience) begins with the distant sound of a tolling bell — a muffled memory of a dream deferred, perhaps (let freedom ring), or the still-faint promise of better things to come (ringing in the new). The bell is a warning — the album sounds a series of alarms and calls for action — and apparently a signal that school is in session, because when Jackson speaks, she's reciting a "Pledge": "We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs. We are like-minded individuals, sharing a common vision, pushing toward a world rid of color-lines." ("Pledge" is printed on the album's jacket along with a more telegraphic "Creed": "Music/Poetry/Dance/Unity.")
Echoed and supported by male voices (presumably those of her coproducers, co-writers and able coconspirators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), Jackson addresses her constituency the way a politician might, abandoning the narrow I for the universal we and inviting us to do the same. Dancers of the world unite!
The community Jackson, Jam and Lewis imagine and encourage here is an activist extension of George Clinton's one nation under a groove. Their "Rhythm Nation" is a multiracial, multinational network "looking for a better way of life" on and off the dance floor. "Come forth with me," Jackson urges over a densely textured, agitated track whose syncopated yelps recall the sampled James Brown squeals of Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's "It Takes Two." Though a revolution might make for a terrific video, Jackson isn't suggesting a revolt of the masses, only a kind of compassionate, dedicated people power. Sure, these are protest songs for the upwardly mobile, balancing despair with optimism, anger with hope, in the currently fashionable formula, but they're realistic enough to acknowledge the hard work that goes into change: "No struggle no progress."
The album's first three songs touch lightly on drugs, hunger and homelessness but zero in on illiteracy and self-help. In "The Knowledge" — which Jackson prefaces by saying, "We are in a race between education and catastrophe" — she warns that "you don't find the knowledge in a pipe" and propagandizes for the school system: "If you wanna be in control/You gotta get yourself in the know." The messages Jackson is putting across are radical only in their simplicity and directness. "If we're gonna change the way the world is run," she says, we should start with the basics and eliminate "prejudice and ignorance." Another, more pointedly emotional song, "Livin' in a World (They Didn't Make)," sees many of these same issues through the eyes of a child "paying for a lot of adult mistakes" and repeats Marvin Gaye's cries to "save the babies." (The album's other key soul touchstone is Sly and the Family Stone, whose sound infuses "Rhythm Nation.")
After "The Knowledge," Jackson snaps, "Get the point? Good. Let's dance," and breaks into the album's kickoff single, "Miss You Much," an angular, clipped number in the familiar Jam-Lewis mold. But the rhythm nation is no doubt already on its feet. Over the course of the album, the team's formula is invigorated and refreshed. If the crunchy, upbeat message tunes combine style and substance for the strongest impact, nothing sounds slight, and everything clicks. The trio of ballads that closes the album complements the opening threesome as a suite that builds from loneliness to love. Rhythm Nation ends with "Someday Is Tonight," which fulfills the promise of Control's "Let's Wait Awhile" and leaves Jackson sighing ecstatically in a jazz-inflected wash of sound. It's an old turnaround, but bracketing the record between politics and erotics places Jackson firmly in control of the two hottest topics in the nation, rhythmic or otherwise.