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The 11 best Janet Jackson songs

Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite Janet Jackson songs, ranked.

At the centre of the mind map that connects artists and performers such as Britney Spears, Usher, Tinashe, Ciara, Teyana Taylor, Troye Sivan, Normani, Kendrick Lamar, Camp Lo, KAYTRANADA, Blade Brown, Big Pun – even Shaquille O’Neal – is Janet “Damita Jo” Jackson. A singer-songwriter, dancer, actor and born performer, Janet Jackson’s decade-spanning career has been ripe with culture-defining moments, from appearing on The Cher Show at just eight years old to her 1993 Rolling Stone cover photo to being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.

Though her career initially began as the spunky and outspoken little sister of The Jackson 5, Janet carved her own lane with a genre-bending pop, house and R&B catalogue of songs that unabashedly explored sexually empowering and socio-political themes. ‘Together Again’ off The Velvet Rope (1997) was a famous tribute families who had lost loved ones in the AIDS epidemic, as well as Jackson’s own friend whom she sadly lost to the disease. New jack swing track ‘Nasty’ explored the artist’s disdain for controlling and abusive men – a fitting theme for 1986 album, Control, which saw Jackson pushing back against the control over the themes explored in her music, the control of her former manager and father Joe Jackson; taking charge of her maturing artistry. And ‘Would You Mind’ – one of Janet’s raunchiest singles from All For You – featured live renditions where a leather-clad Jackson seductively danced on a lucky fan strapped to a wooden cross on stage.

We have Jackson to thank for so many boundary-breaking moments – one could almost draw a straight line from her sexually empowering and provocative lyrics and performance styles to contemporary fierce femme artists such as Megan Thee Stallion and Victoria Monet. We have Janet to thank for kickstarting the careers of Paula Abdul, a regular Jackson collaborator and choreographer (her delivery of “but what has he done for you lately?” in ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately’ is my favourite part of the music video), and even Jennifer Lopez. So picking just 11 songs out of her expansive discography was the tallest of orders, but ahead of Janet’s upcoming UK tour, we did our best to give you a definitive list of her top songs, ranked.

11. ‘Rock With U’

(Discipline, 2008)

This futuristic Jermaine Dupri-produced track starts off our list, and is an example of how many of Jackson’s songs still sound current and timeless despite being released decades ago. Discipline is somewhat of an unsung hero in the catalogue, with many fans and publications often skipping over her 2008 dance/R&B album in favour of discussing The Velvet Rope or Rhythm Nation. But Discipline demonstrated Jackson’s ability to create future-sounding floorfillers in any era, while still remaining true to her core themes and sounds. The opening lyric of ‘Rock With You’ begins with “strobe lights make everything sexier”, and in a post-2007-2008 financial crash world where fans turned to the dancefloor for respite, ‘Rock With U’ fit in seamlessly with the cultural zeitgeist.

10. ‘Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing’

(Janet Jackson, 1982)

From Jackson’s debut self-titled album, ‘Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing’ comes in at No.10 as an early example of what we would come to expect from her. While both Janet Jackson and Dream Street (1984) feature a much more saccharine and demure – or “bubble-gum soul” – sound, ‘Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing’ is a glimpse into the lyrical bravado that becomes Jackson’s signifier. A funk-filled pop-leaning track warning the love interest not to ruin the great relationship she has nurtured, ‘Don’t Mess Up This Good Thing’ is the best of early 80s R&B synths and 70s Jackson 5/ Motown soul.

9. ‘No Sleeep (feat. J.Cole)’

(Unbreakable, 2015)

Perhaps a rogue choice, but this list wouldn’t be complete without the sensual contemporary R&B 2015 single, ‘No Sleeep’. Rather than the provocative brash lyricism that neatly juxtaposed Jackson’s soft, breathy vocals in her earlier work, ‘No Sleeep’ shows her opting for a more mature, controlled and reserved sensuality that still has echoes of The Velvet Rope. The J.Cole feature is a marker of the 2010s, with the rapper regularly collaborating with R&B artists during this time (Miguel, Elle Varner and Jhené Aiko to name a few), offering a masculine sultriness that complemented Jackson’s voice. And almost a decade later, ‘No Sleeep’ sounds just as natural in the 2020s R&B landscape as it did when the single was first released.

8. ‘Spending Time With You’

(Damita Jo, 2004)

Picking just one song from Damita Jo for this list was incredibly difficult – an album that was nominated from Best Contemporary R&B Album at the 2005 GRAMMY Awards, with more hip hop-leaning production (From Rockwilder, Babyface and Kanye West), and plenty of songs that serve as the soundtrack to barbecues and house parties across the global Black diaspora. Plus, prior to this album’s release was the infamous Superbowl incident, which resulted in career-stalling misogyny targeted at Jackson, despite her being the victim of the ordeal. Nevertheless, her core fanbase (myself very much included) rallied around Damita Jo and thank goodness we did, because now we have ‘Spending Time With You’ – a neo-soul classic, complete with an interpolation of the drums from The Gap Band’s breakout single ‘Outstanding’ and the sweet sentiment that there’s “nothing better than spending time with you”.

7. ‘Escapade’

(Rhythm Nation 1814, 1989)

Yes, ‘Rhythm Nation’ from Rhythm Nation 1814 may be the biggest signifier of Jackson’s look, sound and choreography during this era of her career, but I would argue that the album’s standout track is ‘Escapade’. Written and produced by Jackson, and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, this No.1 Billboard Hot 100 single was born out of a conversation between the three collaborators, where they noted the “coolness” of the old-timey word and wanted to feature it in a contemporary song. Originally inspired by Martha & the Vandellas’ ‘Nowhere To Run’, the upbeat pop/ new jack swing track feels as freeing, as youthful, as joyous as its title, marrying early Dream Street Jackson with grown post-Control Jackson.

6. ‘If’

(janet., 1993)

Marking the complete evolution from chaste, prepubescent, chart-friendly public image to a grown woman owning her sexuality on a global stage, ‘If’ takes the sixth spot on our list. Co-written and produced by Janet Jackson and Control collaborators Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, ‘If’ chronicles a woman fantasising about a man – right down to the details of “positions and things like that” (B&S, 1993) – with a futuristic music video exploring voyeurism through technology to accompany it. The rock-tinged hip hop/R&B track sees Jackson dip into a more sultry lower register for her vocal performance on the verses, while transitioning into her higher register as the song crescendos into the pre-chorus and chorus, travelling further into the fantasy.

5. ‘Nasty’

(Control, 1986)

“Miss Jackson if you’re nasty” is a lyric that has been repurposed for everything from political movements such as the 2017 Women’s March in the US, to modern pop acts adopting their own versions of the line in their work. Alt R&B singer-songwriter Tinashe, in particular, has not only uses “Nashe if you’re nasty”, but has also gone on to use the name ‘Nasty Nashe’ on social media. Three decades after ‘Nasty’ was released, Janet Jackson’s influence on women’s empowerment both socio-politically and sexually is just as palpable. This is fitting for a song, with its forceful drumline and rap-sung vocal performance, chastising the nastiness of controlling and abusive men. Jackson is quick to remind us that “the only nasty thing I like is a nasty groove”, which is what you can experience as soon as this song plays.

4. ‘Someone To Call My Lover’

(All For You, 2001)

Sugary sweet pop Jackson returns for ‘Someone To Call My Lover’, with its jovial acoustic guitar intro, and a bridge where she lists the wholesome qualities that she’s looking for in a romantic partner. ‘Someone To Call My Lover’, produced by Terry Lewis, explores the hope in looking for love post-heartbreak, with a music video celebrating markers of African American culture and featuring symbols of renewal to accentuate the joyful tone of the song. This is a faultless pop record that is very deserving of a spot in our top five.

3. ‘I Get Lonely’

(The Velvet Rope, 1997)

If I could make a top 11 that only included the track list of The Velvet Rope, I would have. Over time the album has grown to be Janet Jackson’s magnum opus by fans and critics alike, noting the shift from the big production value the artist was known for with her previous works (Control, Rhythm Nation 1814 and janet.) to a darker, more alternative and introspective project. Eager for fans to see behind her shiny veneer, The Velvet Rope – similar to Mary J Blige’s 1994 album, My Life – explored the more vulnerable, emotional and sometimes painful experiences of Black womanhood, and was a more in-depth look at Jackson’s personal headspace and wellbeing. And ‘I Get Lonely’ is a perfect example of this, a neo-soul classic exploring her relationship with depression, intimacy and companionship.

2. ‘Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)’

(Control, 1986)

Purely for how many times this song has been sampled alone, ‘Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)’ couldn’t be anywhere other than a top three spot. From Camp Lo’s ‘Coolie High’ and SWV’s ‘MCE (Man Crush Everyday)’ to Robert Glasper Experiment’s ‘Calls’ and Blade Brown’s ‘Don’t You Ever Go’, and many more, Janet Jackson’s 1987 single is forever intricately woven into the history of hip hop, jazz and R&B. Plus, the vocal interpolation of older brother Michael Jackson’s ‘The Lady In My Life’ (1982) – Janet’s “Don’t you ever leave / Don’t you ever go” takes from Michael’s “Don’t you go nowhere” – is a delicious addition to an already pitch-perfect R&B classic.

1. ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’

(The Velvet Rope, 1997)

We’re back outside The Velvet Rope for our number one spot, ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’. Featuring hip hop royalty Q-Tip, sampling the incomparable Joni Mitchell and inspired by J Dilla’s remix of ‘Sometimes’ by Brand New Heavies, ‘Got ‘Til It’s Gone’ is a blend of hip hop, folk, R&B, dub and poetry. The lead single from The Velvet Rope, this track conveys appreciating what you have in life, living in the present and taking moments for gratitude even at one’s lowest point. The GRAMMY award-winning music video, directed by Mark Romanek, takes visual cues from South Africa’s Drum magazine and 70s African portrait photography – many moments feel straight out of a Malick Sidibé exhibition – and the song continues to be a visual and sonic reference for Black art globally.

Janet Jackson returns to the UK this September for her ‘Together Again’ Tour. Find tickets here.