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The pop landscape of the 1980s — and the decades that followed — would have been a very different place had Janet Jackson not decided to go her own way. Jackson, who headlines the TD Garden on her State of the World Tour Sunday, made her mark in 1986 with her landmark album “Control”; her artistic peaks in the years that followed were fueled by a boundless curiosity and optimism about what R&B could be, as well as a personal-is-political inner strength that infused beat-heavy tracks like the demanding “What Have You Done For Me Lately?,” the uptempo yet elegiac “Together Again,” and the forceful yet longing “If.”
Jackson had made a name for herself on TV in the ’70s and early ’80s, appearing as the resilient Penny Woods on the sitcom “Good Times” and recurring on the fish-out-of-water sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” and the high-school drama “Fame.” In 1986 she released “Control,” which was produced by Minneapolis funk legends Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; it jolted the pop landscape with its forceful take on young black womanhood and its vibrant beats. Seven of the album’s nine tracks were singles; the joyful “When I Think of You,” an effervescent love song that showcased Jackson’s upper register, hit No. 1; the strutting rebuke to cat-callers, “Nasty,” turned the phrase “Ms. Jackson, if you’re nasty” into pop-cultural gold. “Control” could be seen in a way as an analogue to Jackson’s brother Michael’s pop-altering album “Thriller,” which also spawned multiple hits from its short running time, but it also represented the younger Jackson striking out on her own musically and attitude-wise.
As the CD era allowed artists’ ambitions to stretch beyond the boundaries of a single 12-inch record’s running time, Jackson’s vision expanded. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814,” the 1989 follow-up to “Control,” fused Jackson’s sylphlike voice with razor-wire guitars (on the arena-rock-tinged “Black Cat”), beats that were so massive as to be claustrophobia-inducing (the propulsive “Miss You Much”), and boundary-pushing, politically minded soul that borrowed from Quiet Storm plushness (the mournful “Come Back to Me”) and the then-burgeoning New Jack Swing movement as it advocated for its dreams of unity and acceptance. “Janet,” released in 1993, pushed Jackson’s musical and lyrical boundaries even further, with Public Enemy’s firebrand Chuck D lending his voice to the anti-establishment broadside “New Agenda” and Jackson channeling both New Orleans swamp-funk and alt-rock’s distortion treated guitars on the swaggering “What’ll I Do.” “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a bedheaded musing on love that samples James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” and The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President,” updated smooth R&B for the early ’90s, with Jackson sounding restrained yet utterly confident.
This year “The Velvet Rope,” Jackson’s wide-ranging 1997 album that dug into the pain she’d experienced over the course of her life and crashed through sexual boundaries while melding her R&B to simmering trip-hop, muscular rock, and slivers of Joni Mitchell’s wistful “Big Yellow Taxi” and a modem’s opening screech, turns 20. It’s become a talisman for pop rebellion — the moment when pop stars shake up the perceptions surrounding them by striking out into bold new directions lyrically and musically. “The Velvet Rope” is undoubtedly a titanic achievement; it’s been cited as a precursor to any number of liberatory pop moments, from Christina Aguilera’s ragged “Stripped” to Kanye West’s AutoTune-cloaked “808s and Heartbreak.”
But “The Velvet Rope” was hardly the only moment where Jackson had broken free of expectations. “Control” established her as a pop star on the level of her brother; “Rhythm Nation” showed how her feather-light voice could roar with the big cats; “Janet” established her as an artist who could amalgamate while pushing forward.
While the fallout from the 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident, where Justin Timberlake exposed Jackson’s breast, led to a period where she was unfairly shoved toward pop’s nether reaches (and the lackluster albums she released in 2006 and 2008 didn’t help), 2015’s “Unbreakable” was a triumph, a return to form that didn’t feel like a simple rehashing of her past or an awkward grab toward the present. Released on her own imprint Rhythm Nation Records, the album incorporates 2010s EDM and calls back to the hiccupping “Velvet Rope” ballad “I Get Lonely,” Jackson’s voice still able to communicate a rich spectrum of emotions while maneuvering around the high-wire act of long-term pop stardom.
Jackson calling her tour “State of the World” isn’t just a sign that she’s still thinking politically; it shows proudly how she’s still aiming to alter the landscape in a way that ushers in “a better way of life,” as she sang all those years ago.
JANET JACKSON: State of the World Tour
At TD Garden, Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. Tickets: From $30.50, www.tdgarden.com
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