People can't find enough to eat
Now our kids can't go out and play
That's the state of the world today
Following the insane success of Control, Janet decided she wanted more creative control for her next album. She also decided she wanted to make a difference, just as her brother Michael had with some of the songs on his latest album, Bad. So she put together a Concept Album that would explore racism, drug abuse, and poverty. It would not be devoid of more romantic and optimistic songs, though.
For this album, she continued to produce a lot of her songs with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. But in addition to her New Jack Swing, she added in some more industrial (specifically the title song itself, "Rhythm Nation"), and even a more explicit dab of The Minneapolis Sound. One of the songs, "Black Cat", was produced by Jellybean Johnson. The final CD would have a total of 20 tracks; the vinyl version removed most of the interludes except for the intro and the finale, reducing it to 14 tracks.
Rhythm Nation proved Control was no fluke for Janet, but it would not be without its flaws. While acclaim for the music in general was nigh-universal, the concept part of the album fell flat with some critics, and ultimately did not stand the test of time. Jon Pareles of The New York Times described it as "a cause without a rebellion" while simultaneously praising the music.
Indeed, this album was contemporaneous with the rise of Gangsta Rap, which was generally recognized to tackle Black issues from a more authentic position; a similar attitude would sow the seeds for the downfall of New Jack as a whole. Janet mused about the naïvete of her approach in hindsight; looking back 25 years later, Janet would quip in the song "Shoulda Known Better" from the 2015 album Unbreakable:
And Rhythm Nation was the dream
I guess next time, I'll know better.
But commercially, Rhythm Nation 1814 sold even more records than Control did; 17 million worldwide, going six-times Platinum in the US. It would be on the Billboard 200 chart for nearly two years, and was the number-one album of 1990 in the United States.
Seven singles were released worldwide from the album: "Miss You Much", "Rhythm Nation", "Escapade", "Alright", "Come Back to Me", "Black Cat", and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)". None of them would peak lower than #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and four hit #1. An eighth single, "State of the World", was made a promotional single last minute, and was thus ineligible to chart in the US or the UK because of chart rules at the time.
Rhythm Nation 1814 became the first (and currently only) album to produce #1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in three consecutive calendar years ("Miss You Much" in 1989, "Escapade" and "Black Cat" in 1990, and "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" in 1991). Its seven top-10 singles tied a record with her brother (Thriller) and Bruce Springsteen (Born in the U.S.A.); they would subsequently be joined by Drake (Scorpion).
Two different video albums went double-Platinum in the US; a compilation of the music videos, and a half-hour-long eponymous long-form music video which included three songs from the album. The long-form music video won a Grammy for the format. "Miss You Much" raked up multiple American Music Awards. The video for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" would win the 1991 MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video, and ranks high on all-time music video rankings. The various music videos also garnered Janet the MTV Video Vanguard award in 1990.
Janet promoted the album with her first world tour in 1990, doing 131 shows over five legs from March through November. Most of the shows sold out, and she was the only female solo artist to crack the top ten in concert box office receipts for the year. Four different showings at the international opener of the tour, the Tokyo Dome, sold out in seven minutes, a record for the venue that stands to this day.
It was through the promotional tour that the album would see its greatest social impact. Janet used proceeds from her shows at Madison Square Garden as seed money for Rhythm Nation Scholarship Program, granting scholarships to African American students who sought to study communications or performing arts at universities associated with the United Negro College Fund.
It was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2020.
- "Interlude: Pledge" (0:47)
- "Rhythm Nation" (5:31)
- "Interlude: T.V." (0:22)†
- "State of the World" (4:48)
- "Interlude: Race" (0:05)†
- "The Knowledge" (3:54)
- "Interlude: Let's Dance" (0:03)†
- "Miss You Much" (4:12)
- "Interlude: Come Back" (0:21)†
- "Love Will Never Do (Without You)" (5:50)
- "Livin' in a World (They Didn't Make)" (4:41)
- "Alright" (6:26)
- "Interlude: Hey Baby" (0:10)†
- "Escapade" (4:44)
- "Interlude: No Acid" (0:05)†
- "Black Cat" (4:50)
- "Lonely" (4:59)
- "Come Back to Me" (5:33)
- "Someday Is Tonight" (6:00)
- "Interlude: Livin'...In Complete Darkness" (1:07)
† = Interludes that are not included in the vinyl album.
"All the lonely nights, I troped alone:"
- B-Side: Two notable ones:
- "You Need Me", a B-side to "Miss You Much".
- "Skin Game", the B-side to "Come Back to Me". This one proved popular enough to make it onto the set-list of several of her tours.
- Big Word Shout: Janet shouts "Minneapolis" during the interlude after the second chorus of "Escapade".
- Bookends: Clock/tower bells at the start of "Pledge", and the end of "Livin...In Complete Darkness".
- Brown Note: The Title Track managed to become a real-life example by accident. In 2022, an engineer at Microsoft reported that the music video contains a frequency that resonates with many types of laptop hard drives made in or around the year 2000, and as a result, it can cause them to crash when playing the video on or within earshot of them. The issue is prominent enough to result in the song being declared a cybersecurity risk.
- Concept Album: Janet tried to do this with Rhythm Nation 1814, but the concept part is generally recognized to have fallen flat; something Janet herself acknowledged years later.
- Darker and Edgier: Compared to Control in both production and lyrical content, this was easily Janet's darkest album until The Velvet Rope in 1997.
- Deliberately Monochrome: The "Rhythm Nation" short film, which featured two of the album's singles, was filmed entirely in black and white to reflect the album's dark, industrial influence.
- Genre Mashup: Rhythm Nation sees Janet taking a fusion genre she helped create (New Jack Swing), and meshing it with rap, industrial, and hard rock.
- The Minneapolis Sound: Rhythm Nation is still deep in the Prince-esque sound, but with a more industrial edge, and more prominent new jack swing influence. "Black Cat", co-produced by Jackson and former Time member Jellybean Johnson, has the most Minneapolis influence. After Rhythm Nation, Janet, Jam, and Lewis would de-emphasize the influence of the Minneapolis sound in favour of contemporary R&B.
- New Jack Swing: The album is still very rich in the sound that made Control so big, but also began to expand into other genres before her next album, janet., went a completely different direction.
- Record Producer Flyte Tyme and Jellybean Johnson returned once more to produce the album, with Janet co-writing and producing every track except "Black Cat", which was her first 100% solo composition.
- Sampling: This was the first album by any of the Jackson siblings to feature sampling. The title track is backed by a prominent sample of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" by Sly and the Family Stone, and Janet's own "Nasty". "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" would be sampled again for "Scream", her collaboration with brother Michael.
- Special Guest: Overlapping with A Wild Rapper Appears!, Heavy D appears on "Alright", and was even featured in the music video.
- Title Track: Kinda. "Rhythm Nation" the song does not include the number.
- ...That's the end!?