Janet Jackson, “Discipline” (Island) [1 star]
If there’s anything sadder in popular music than a middle-aged diva refusing to grow up and reinvent herself, clinging instead to the coquettish sex-kitten pose that grew old a decade ago, it’s a middle-aged diva refusing to grow up and only reinventing herself by adding some creepy hints of S&M to the coquettish sex-kitten pose that grew old a decade ago. (See also: Madonna.) As Jackson sings on the gentle ballad that stands as one of the disc’s few good moments: “This can’t b good/This can’t b good.” And she ain’t kidding.
“It has a lot of different meanings for me,” Jackson said of the title of her 10th studio album, which arrives in stores on Tuesday, during an interview with MTV News. “But the most important is my discipline in my work.” Yes, well, work is exactly what “Discipline” sounds like: Long gone is the joy of the newly emancipated that powered the singer’s early albums and which made us forgive her limited voice. In its place is endless, empty-headed, near pornographic silliness that stoops even lower than the equally desperate, post-Nipplegate “20 Y.O.” (2006) and the ridiculous “Damita Jo” (2004).
“I’ve misbehaved, done some things I know I shouldn’t do/I touched myself, even though you told me not to… Daddy, I did something, now I want you to come punish me,” Jackson coos in the title track, an apparent attempt to out-nasty R. Kelly that falls flat both as seduction and as music. Despite the presence of some impressive guests, ranging from Missy Elliott to the great guitarist Ernie Isley, and top-drawer production talent including boyfriend Jermaine Dupri, Ne-Yo and Rodney Jerkins, these 13 tracks are strictly generic, with forced or plodding grooves and instantly forgettable melodies. Even worse, though, is Jackson’s robotic delivery, which sounds just as mechanical as that of “Kioko,” the computer that Jackson chats with during the nine interminable skits or “interludes” that have become a sorry trademark.
Really, someone needs to establish a retirement home for fading pop divas, a place where they could live comfortably on their royalties and avoid public embarrassment until they prove they can pull off a Cher. Among the first tenants: Jackson, Madonna, the Spice Girls and Mariah Carey (not to prejudge her forthcoming “E=MC²,” though I don’t have high hopes).