* * 1/2
. . . Or: "Rhythm Method Nation," a.k.a. "Let's Not Wait Awhile."
When virtually any other R&B singer plays the tart, it's business as usual. When it's Janet Jackson doing the heavy breathing, it's a public relations coup, so transfixed are the masses by the suggestion that a formerly robotic member of the Jackson clan might palpably be a sexual being.
So be it. Jackson's first album in four years is destined for a long ride at No. 1, not because it's any great piece of work, but largely for its aphrodisiacal aspirations. The first half is heavy in highly suggestive hip-hop, but later, in slower stretches, it turns into a Barry White record for the '90s. The final ballad, "Any Time, Any Place," explicates the joy of sex in public places, riding out with two minutes of rain and thunder sound effects for the afterglow. Can't wait for the Zalman King video.
This reinvention is supposed to show off Jackson's womanliness, now that she's out of that uniform and into the unzipped jeans of the back cover. Too often, though, the carnality here seems as much a costume as the social consciousness paraded through the last album. She sounds every bit the sensualist, all right, but rarely spontaneously so; as is often the case with Madonna, the come-ons tend to sound like they're coming off a TelePrompTer.
If it's a bit forced, the album is hardly a total loss. Collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis take the edge off the banality in better moments with beats that blast real funk. (Their use of a Supremes sample in "You Want This" is an especially clever moment.) The ballyhooed cameo by opera star Kathleen Battle as background wailer on the mediocre "This Time" is regrettable, but Public Enemy's Chuck D does redeem the lone consciousness anthem "New Agenda" with his galvanizing rap.
CD buyers should note the unlisted "phantom" track, a girl-group-style epilogue in which Jackson thanks her pals. There, in that throwaway, she sounds like she's having real fun, unburdened by the need to prove her powers of seduction.