"Relax, it's just sex," Janet Jackson coos at the end of "Sexhibition," on her latest CD, "Damita Jo." It's an interesting admonishment coming from Jackson because sex -- and all the ways it can be packaged and sold to a public both easily scandalized and titillated -- has never been just sex to her. Long before her bejeweled right breast made a surprise appearance at the Super Bowl halftime show last month, Jackson was using sex as a marketing ploy and headline-grabber, the better to distract people from her whisper of a voice.
Of course, the problem with Jackson's approach to sex is also the main problem with this, her eighth, studio CD. She's a twice-divorced 38-year-old woman, yet when she sings about The Nasty, she comes off like a child who's just discovered what grown folks do with each other when they're alone. It isn't mature or revelatory -- just Jackson vamping and murmuring four- and 12-letter cuss words, like a teenager who's watched too many hours of the Spice Channel.
"So many different characters live within us, all looking for love," Jackson says on the CD's spoken-word intro, "Looking for Love."
Damita Jo, which is Jackson's middle name, is presented as one of those characters, a sexually liberated woman unafraid of letting a man know exactly what she wants, and how she wants it.
"Warmth," in which she tells a partner, "Nothing can prepare you for the warmth of my mouth," plays like a segment of HBO's "Real Sex," but without any of the cheeky fun. That song segues into "Moist," with the line, "Boy, you're about to make the rain come down." OK, Miss Jackson, we get the point.
As with her 2001 CD, "All for You," Jackson is again working mightily to compete in the Britney-and-Beyonce pop universe. (She was scheduled to be on "The Late Show With David Letterman" last night, her first appearance on CBS since the Super Bowl, as part of a major publicity blitz for the album.)
Sex is Jackson's chosen weapon, and it's a miscalculation, especially on the ballads. Her range as a singer is so limited she often just sounds bored. She fares better on uptempo songs such as "SloLove," the lush "I Want You," produced by Kanye West (who also appears on "My Baby"), and "R&B Junkie," although much of its magic comes courtesy of a sample from Evelyn "Champagne" King's 1981 hit, "I'm in Love."
Efficiently produced by her longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, "Damita Jo" isn't a bad album, but it lacks the seductive joy of "Control," "Rhythm Nation 1814," and "The Velvet Rope." At a point in her career where making music should seem effortless, "Damita Jo" feels unnecessarily labored. Even if sex is just sex, it shouldn't sound like work.
Renee Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.