'Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814' Turns 30: All the Songs Ranked 9/19/2019 by Sal Cinquemani
There was a brief moment in the late 1980s when producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were unsure whether they'd be involved in the follow-up to Janet Jackson's multiplatinum breakthrough album Control. It's an outcome that seems unthinkable today -- and one that could very well have changed the trajectory of pop music as we know it.
Released 30 years ago on Sept. 19, 1989, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 is the only album in history to spawn seven top five singles on the Billboard Hot 100. But while pop has always been a singles-driven genre, Rhythm Nation also helped revitalize the concept album, which -- with a few exceptions, like Marvin Gaye's similarly themed What's Going On -- had largely been the province of rock auteurs.
"I remember people coming to me and saying we should do a record called Control II," Jam told Billboard. The impulse to try to recreate the success of that album, which yielded five consecutive top five singles on the Hot 100, was understandable. With Control, Jam and Lewis had helped personalize Jackson's music, but with Rhythm Nation, they set their gaze outward.
"It was a crazy time," Jam recalled. "The Reagan years were ending. There were school shootings. There were all these unbelievable things starting to happen." And so Jackson, Jam and Lewis channeled the carnage they witnessed on TV every day into songs like "State of the World," "The Knowledge," and, of course, the title track, which became one of the singer's most iconic hits.
The theme of social justice permeated every aspect of the album's creation. An ABC News special titled Black In White America, which aired just weeks before Rhythm Nation was released, inspired the use of black and white in the album's artwork and videos, including a 30-minute short film of the same name and subsequent world tour.
Though the '80s are known for fostering a culture of indifference, Rhythm Nation possesses a wide-eyed idealism that would be impossible today. It's something Jackson herself acknowledged on "Shoulda Known Better," a song from her 2014 album Unbreakable: "I had this great epiphany/And rhythm nation was the dream/I guess next time I'll know better."
As a body of work, Rhythm Nation is often considered in its entirety, but to celebrate the album's 30th anniversary, we decided to break down its individual parts, most of which are no less impressive on their own merits. We've ranked each of the album's 12 tracks below, with the exception of its eight interludes...