Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage
For The Record: The Transformational Public Heartache Of Janet Jackson's 'All For You' At 20
After years of turmoil, Janet Jackson entered the Y2K era as a free woman. The artwork of her 2001 album, All For You, says it all: Lounging on a bed, a white blanket covering her nude curves, she flashes her famous, million-watt smile. It's a stark contrast to the cover of her 1997 album, The Velvet Rope, in which her face is lowered and nearly covered by ginger curls.
The introspective The Velvet Rope digs into Jackson's depression caused by an emotional breakdown. Long regarded as her magnum opus, the album embraces the LBGTQ+ community, addresses domestic violence and serves as a raw therapy session where Jackson lets the curtain of the "Strong Black Woman" trope fall.
In her 2017 essay, "The Mule of the World: The Strong Black Woman and the Woes of Being 'Independent,'" Cailyn Petrona Stewartee discusses how Black women have historically been forced to mask their true selves behind armor.
"The Black woman is represented to be either too mad or too strong, her presence is constructed as one that is always hyper-visible leaving no room for acknowledgment of her organic human complexity and nuance," Stewart writes. "And if survival is attained, pieces of the Black woman's sanity and humanity have been lost along the journey."
Of course, Jackson had taken breaks in between albums before. But the four-year-long journey that led to All For You, her seventh album, found her picking up those shattered pieces and relearning herself again. What was behind that beaming smile on the cover? Her glow-up after finalizing her divorce from René Elizondo Jr.
Elizondo Jr. was a backup dancer for Jackson's older sister, LaToya. He later became Janet's creative partner—he directed some of her music videos, including "That's the Way Love Goes" and "Together Again"—and one of the main songwriters on The Velvet Rope.
Theirs was a nine-year secret marriage—Jackson even lied about it during a 1997 "Oprah" interview—that was only revealed following the divorce announcement. Things soon turned messy, as Elizondo Jr., who initiated the breakup in 2000, later sued Jackson for $10 million over property rights.
Once the ink dried on the divorce papers, Jackson lifted her head up high and doubled down on her newfound singledom on All For You.
"I'm no longer married. I hope it doesn't sound bad to say that was the inspiration. But because I'm in a different space, it's like I'm being introduced to a whole new world that I've never experienced before," she explained in an album promo video. "I feel really good, and the album was a lot of fun to make. My life has changed a great deal, and that's why there's a new, freer me."
Compared to Velvet Rope, All For You trades dark vulnerability for a delicate intimacy as she takes back her power as a woman and uses happiness as her revenge. Jackson goes the opposite route of pop's post-Y2K futurism that artists like Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez were exploring at the time. Instead, she and her longtime producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, traveled back to the '70s and '80s to revive funk, disco, dance and rock.
That joyride is near-tangible on All For You's title track, which is pure sunshine captured in a song. Sampling Italian-American ensemble Change's 1980 single, "The Glow of Love," the song's vibrant production and signature Janet winks—"Got a nice package alright/Guess I'm gonna have to ride it tonight"—were a winning combination: Her fifth No. 1 hit, "All For You" won a GRAMMY for Best Dance Recording at the 44th GRAMMY Awards, held in 2002.
Jackson's free spirit continued with "Come On Get Up," an extension of her early-'80s dance-pop eras. Rockwilder, best known for his work with Method Man and Redman in the '90s, co-produced the song, along with four other tracks, marking the first time Jackson sought out new collaborators since 1986's Control. "Someone To Call My Lover," which also received a GRAMMY nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and "Doesn't Really Matter" also exude happiness. The former samples America's 1972 song, "Ventura Highway," as Jackson sweetly dreams about her next beau; the latter, a single off the 2000 soundtrack to the Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, in which Jackson also starred, is a sparkling ode to unconditional love.
But this wouldn't be a Janet Jackson album without a hefty dose of sex. While "When We Oooo" continues the feminine sensuality from 1993's janet., it's the one-two punch of "Love Scene (Ooh Baby)" and "Would You Mind" that really augments the erotica. "Would You Mind" finds the singer yearning to "Kiss you, suck you, taste you, ride you" as the rain comes down and she literally moans into the listener's ear. (Jackson later reignited the freaky adventure on 2004's Damita Jo via "Warmth" and "Moist," two songs even more explicit than their predecessors, in which Jackson further details the pleasures of giving and receiving oral sex.)
On the flipside of pleasure is pain, and Jackson's $10 million lawsuit is still top of mind. "Trust A Try" finds the singer raging about feeling betrayed atop a headbanging fusion of opera, rap and hard rock. On the Five Stairsteps-interpolating "Truth," she makes note of her sold-out tours and radio hits while feeling a bit bitter: "How much is enough to pay for this mistake?" she sings. She calls on Carly Simon for "Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)," which interpolates Simon's 1972 classic, "You're So Vain." Jackson has every right to be angry, and she fearlessly taunts her ex-husband on the refrain: "Thought you'd get the money, too/Greedy motherf*****s try to have their cake and eat it, too."
"There are times when it feels like it just happened yesterday, and there's a bit of a sting. But I have to move on. I have to keep going. I can't let it stress me out, stop me from reaching my goals. I'm just glad that I'm in the state of mind that I'm in," Jackson told VIBE of the divorce in 2001. On the album's closer, "Better Days," she makes it a priority to live for herself without restraints: "Leavin' old s*** behind/And move on with my life/The blindfold's off my eyes/And now all I see for me is better days."
Jackson stuck to that promise to "leavin' old s*** behind" following All For You. The double-platinum album continued her No. 1 hot streak, debuting atop the Billboard 200 in May 2001, and earned a GRAMMY nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album. That same year, at age 35, MTV crowned her their first MTV Icon. The moment broke more ageist stereotypes, as seen with Tina Turner's 1984 Private Dancer comeback in her mid-'40s followed by Beyoncé, who most recently scored the most GRAMMY wins as a female artist at age 39.
Since All For You, Jackson has released four albums, survived a misogynistic Super Bowl catastrophe, became a mom in 2017, scored more acting roles, and received the Billboard Icon Award and the MTV EMA Global Icon Award, both in 2018. The singer could've let the divorce circus derail her, but All For You proved she couldn't be confined by a man nor her music. Along with celebrating the beauty of Black women's multifaceted nature, the album showed they could maneuver through pop and R&B with ease.
It's a feat that has continued with Black millennial artists like Rihanna, whose Rated R and Loud mimics Jackson's Velvet Rope and All For You transition, Ciara, Dawn Richard, Solange, Doja Cat, Tinashe and Kelela. Since All For You, women have shattered genre boundaries, dominated the charts and revealed their most vulnerable selves. We have Janet Jackson to thank for first inviting us into her world.