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Jackson proves career not a bust with Damita Jo

It sounds like the music of a woman in her 30s. For all practical purposes, Janet Jackson’s latest record is exactly that.

At age 37, Janet Jackson released the 9th album of her career, Damita Jo, on Tuesday. A local electronics store welcomed the release with the debut price of $9.99.

Since releasing her All For You album in 2001, Jackson’s popularity appears to have waned. On any given day, people would rather talk about older brother Michael’s impending legal problems.

Where did things go wrong for this shy girl born in Gary, Ind.?

The inaugural CD in my music collection bears Janet Jackson’s name. MTV, which began airing in 1981, the year I was born, gave Jackson the honor of being the first entertainer named an MTV Icon during a 2001 ceremony. When Jackson brought her All For You tour to Tampa in 2001 — scheduled for Sept. 12 — I had tickets in hand, ready to experience one of the most celebrated Jacksons in history, and someone I consider in the top 3 of my personal favorite artists.

While the album single “Just a Little While” cracked the Top 10 this month, the overwhelming feeling I get from Damita Jo paints Jackson as more of a contemporary adult artist than an R&B chart topper. Damita Jo, by the way, is Jackson’s middle name.

For fellow Jackson fans, I’d imagine accepting Jackson’s dwindling star power would be like coming to grips with news of your parents’ impending divorce. None of us wants to believe it, but it’s hard to ignore the reality of such an event.

During an interview on the Late Show with David Letterman on Tuesday night, at least half of Letterman’s interview focused on the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.” Letterman disagreed with Jackson that America wanted to hear her talk about something besides her accidentally exposed breast. “I’m embarrassed,” she told him.

I sat, watching the interview, waiting for Letterman to move on at some point to another topic. He eventually did, but stayed on each subject a fraction of the time he interrogated Jackson about the Super Bowl.

Having been in show businesses since age 5, Jackson has never shied away from delivering powerful life messages. In “Let’s Wait Awhile,” a track on her 1986 album, Control, Jackson sings about not rushing into a sexual relationship with your significant other. The song helped teens not feel embarrassed about openly discussing abstinence.

In 1997, Jackson was quoted as saying, “Dreams can become a reality when we possess a vision that is characterized by the willingness to work hard, a desire for excellence, and a belief in our right and our responsibility to be equal members of society.”

Over the years, her albums have allowed the listener to be a fly on the wall. Many of Jackson’s records feature short, silly conversations with her friends. Some of the interjected monologues sound like diary entries read out loud. Many of them are inspirational.

I may be disappointed at the lack of innovation in the music on Damita Jo. Her album sounds more neo-soul, like Jaguar Wright, than original, freer styles like Timbaland and Missy Elliott.

Maybe Damita Jo is Jackson’s way of saying she’s done proving herself. Album sales will soon tell if she is right. Hopefully, for Jackson’s sake, the debacle that was the Super Bowl half-time show has ended and those negative images don’t drown out the positive messages she has left.

Damita Jo, Jackson told Letterman, is an album that represents some of the characters inside her mind. All of us have dozens of characters, Jackson said, and we show different people different personalities, depending on the situation.

The ramblings in the monologues on Damita Jo almost make the listener feel uncomfortable, as if eavesdropping on a breakthrough during a therapy session. During the opening track on the album, Jackson declares, “We’re vulnerable/ We’re sensitive/ And we’re complicated people, too/ So many people, rolled into one/ We contain so much/ So much creativity/ So much energy/ So many contradictions/ So much confusion/ So much clarity/ So many moments of faith and fear/ So many different characters live within us/ All looking for love/”

Janet Jackson: MTV Icon and five-time Grammy winner. Her star may look like it’s fading, but her messages still resound loud and clear.

Kevin Graham is a former Oracle Editor in Chief.