What’s in a fantasy world? Both Janet Jackson’s Discipline (Island) and Erykah Badu’s New AmErykah, Part One (4th World War) (Universal/Motown) are structured as journeys. On the sleek, metallic Discipline, Jackson logs onto a computer and is greeted by the robotic voice of “Kyoko,” which assumes the roles of guide, servant, and cybertherapist over the course of the album. On Badu’s sinuous sprawl of a record, the opening “AmErykahn Promise” describes a train ride to America whose destination seems to be both Ellis Island and Auschwitz. A Darth Vader–sounding conductor instructs passengers where to leave their valuables and orders a “brain sample” taken from one resistant rider.
As conceits go, they’re both ridiculous. Jackson’s is a meaningless nod to digital culture; Badu’s is steeped, as her record intermittently is, in Nation of Islam bullshit. But for all the ideological wooziness of New AmErykah, Part One (Part Two will follow in the summer, and another record in the fall), for all the weirdness that caused the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff to label it “a deep, murky swim in her brain,” it’s an inviting record and, yes, a record to wade into and swim around in but also one that sounds as if it had been made by someone living in the world.
Discipline is the kind of record you forget before you’re finished listening to it. Its synthesized, programmed sound, the silvery packaging and black-and-white photographs (with Jackson looking something like a cross between a dominatrix and Sally Bowles by way of Blade Runner), the sexless sexiness of Jackson’s come-ons and confidences, all add up to an artifact that looks and sounds as if it had been untouched by human hands. Discipline is a like a piece of coffee-table erotica that’s safe to display precisely because it has no chance of turning you on.
It now seems a very long time ago that we were able to talk about Janet Jackson as a performer who was much more interesting — and certainly making better music — than her brother. Her best album remains 1997’s The Velvet Rope (Virgin), with its radio-friendly singles, especially “Got ’til It’s Gone” (which benefitted from the gnomic seductiveness of Q-Tip’s participation) and the scary piece of sexual rage “What About.” If on that number Jackson didn’t go to a place that would have made it scalding, it was still harder and meaner than anything you’d have expected to find on a CD of superstar pop.
But the title of her breakthrough album, Control (A&M, 1986), has been the watchword for her entire career. And control is interesting only if you have a sense of what it’s struggling to contain. More and more, Jackson has come to seem like the adored media star of William Gibson’s novel Idoru — a star who is entirely virtual. It’s kismet that a credit in the CD booklet reads “Janet Jackson is a registered trademark of Janet Jackson.”
Executive producer Jermaine Dupri gets credit for producing the vocals on several tracks here. I believe they were produced — what’s hard to believe is that they were sung, not programmed. The opening “Feedback and “Luv” are listenable-enough dance pop, but they’re as indistinct as their names. Their hooks are the type a dance-pop producer can order up as easily as a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. There’s nothing to distinguish them from any of the other billion hooks served.
Given all this, it’s hard to see the sense in Jackson’s continuing determination to sell her work as an ongoing sexual diary. The gadgety slickness and packaging and anonymity of Discipline is far removed from the pleasure or surrender or rage or delirium of sex. It’s like a condom you order from the Sharper Image catalogue.
On the other hand, in a recent front-page interview for the New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure section, Erykah Badu talked freely about how badly she’d needed a bath after an uninterrupted couple of days in the studio. And the photos accompanying the article showed her in her big freaky Afro wig on the mattress in her one-room Brooklyn apartment, tchotchkes and electrical wires on the floors behind her, the walls a collage of photos and art work. It looked like a place an art student or musician would live in, a DIY collage meant to enshrine cherished icons and add up to a portrait of the person who assembled it.
And the genuine pleasure of New AmErykah is that it’s a sonic version of that approach. There are the usual elements we associate with retro-minded R&B. I never tire of that welcoming aural dirt meant to simulate the clicks and scratches of battered vinyl. More important, there’s that unmistakable feel of early- and mid-’70s funk, the sound of black pop in the age between the glory days of soul and the onset of disco. Badu’s vocals are high, feline, with a slight rasp at the back of her throat providing a nice marbling of aural abrasion, often muttered as if she were ruminating over the words as she says them. And because the lyrics can be as free-associational as “underwater, stove top, blue flame, scientist come out with your scales up get baptized in the ocean of the hungry. . . . ,” her vocal approach adds to the hallucinatory aura, the sense that we’re listening to her inner monologue.