Janet Jackson showcases artistic depth, towering stage presence at TD Garden

Farrenton Grigsby

Janet Jackson (pictured during a State of the World show in Houston) brought her tour to TD Garden Sunday.

By Maura Johnston Globe Correspondent 

Since she declared her independence with her fiercely spirited 1986 album, “Control,” Janet Jackson has been one of the post-MTV era’s most formidable pop presences. She’s spent the decades since releasing radio-dominating singles that tested the boundaries of pop&B — the politically optimistic “Rhythm Nation,” the sumptuous “That’s the Way Love Goes,” the metal-edged “If,” and the bittersweetly upbeat “Together Again” — and doubling down on her commitment to being herself.

Sunday night’s TD Garden stop on her State of the World Tour, which had been postponed from 2016 because of her pregnancy, showcased the depth of her catalog and her towering stage presence. It was also a reminder that the hopes for a better world that powered tracks like “Rhythm Nation” and “New Agenda” remain relevant years after their original release.


The show opened with a taped broadside about the decaying state of race relations in the United States, denouncing white supremacy and domestic terrorism while paying tribute to Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and others who have died at the hands of police. Jackson then appeared, launching into the 1990 track “The Knowledge” and leading the crowd in a chant of the New Jack Swing-tinged track’s impassioned bridge: “Prejudice . . . No! Ignorance . . . No! Bigotry . . . No! Illiteracy . . . No!” The tour’s signature song, in which Jackson recounts the stories of people living on the edge over stomping robo-funk, came next, signaling Jackson’s blending of the personal and the political — and the physical, too, with her and her phalanx of backup dancers offering up serious moves.

Jackson’s discography is so full of smashes that many of her earlier hits, like the giddy love song “When I Think of You,” the street-harassment rebuke “Nasty,” and the assertive strut “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” were part of lively medleys during the show’s first segment. The middle third was largely given to downtempo tracks like the simmering “No Sleeep” and the feather-light yet acid-laced 1997 track “Got ’Til It’s Gone.” Jackson’s airy soprano can communicate heavy emotions on ballads and club-ready tracks alike; she was overcome after performing the domestic-violence chronicle “What About,” during which her dancers acted out slice-of-life tableaus, and the performances of the longing “If” and the boisterous “Rhythm Nation” that followed had a spark.

Jackson ended her show with a nod to “Unbreakable,” the 2015 album that unveiled her older and wiser, but no less urgent, 21st-century self. “Black Eagle,” which kicked off the encore, continued the themes of working toward common goals (“I’m singing this love song to show my support/ To the beautiful people who have been ignored,” she murmurs over a skeletal beat), while “Dammn Baby” showed how her musical innovations have reverberated throughout pop, incorporating the cavernous 21st-century beats of trap while also calling back to 1998’s sinewy “I Get Lonely.” “Well Traveled,” a power ballad about keeping her eyes open, closed out the night, but its message of constant movement implied “see you later” instead of “goodbye” — a hopeful farewell from a singer whose outlook for a better world has fueled her impressive body of work.

Janet Jackson: State of the World Tour

At TD Garden, Sunday

Maura Johnston can be reached at