Janet Jackson was a good 21 months late for her date with Philadelphia. Good thing the only thing that changed while we were waiting was the world.
The reclusive legend, 51, was originally scheduled to play here in February 2016 in support of Unbreakable, her most recent full-length album. The show was pushed to August of that year so the singer could undergo throat surgery then was postponed indefinitely after Jackson announced plans to have a child with her now-estranged husband, Wissam Al Mana. The development left local “Control” freaks who’d already secured their tickets holding the R&B equivalent of a savings bond, which they were finally able to cash, with interest, Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center.
Jackson’s current tour, renamed “State of the World,” does not shy away from the difficult issues of today. Though slick-packaged political statements are de rigueur for today’s most woke musicians, Jackson’s compact, confident production was a much-needed reminder that she set the standard for the socially engaged pop star nearly 30 years ago.
The audience was composed mostly of thirtysomething-and-up fans who knew the words (and in some cases, the moves) by heart. Each section contained a smattering of women rocking convincing DIY versions of Jackson’s Rhythm Nation paramilitary look. How you really know you’re with some grown folks: West Philly native DJ Aktive, who warmed up the arena before Jackson took the stage a few minutes before 9 p.m., stirred bigger roars with Chubb Rock’s 1991 hit “Treat ‘Em Right” than Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.”
A trio of banners cascading from the ceiling served as the backdrop for an opening montage addressing humanity’s biggest struggles by name, from famine and domestic terrorism to global warming and white supremacy. The one at stage left lifted, revealing a cane-wielding Jackson decked out in a bold, Cersei Lannister-esque leather-trimmed dress. Lithe and lively from the start, she jumped right into “The Knowledge,” probably the most danceable song about childhood literacy ever written (“We’ve got to teach our kids to read & write / that’s the only way to win this fight for life”), following it with “State of the World,” the civic-minded banger that gives this venture its name.
Though this undertaking is technically a redo of a tour promoting Unbreakable, the bulk of Jackson’s 2017 set list was pulled from her most acclaimed albums, including Control (1986) and janet. (1993). But it was Rhythm Nation 1814, the source of both those opening tracks, that ended up providing the most timely material — its themes of equality and revolution are just as relevant now as they were in 1989, and Jackson didn’t have to change a single note to make it that way.
Jackson, backed by a diverse group of dancers and a sharp live band paced by Philly native “Lil” John Roberts on percussion, ripped through a slew of her biggest singles early (“Nasty,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” “Pleasure Principle,” “Escapade”), hitting the accompanying choreography with a joy and precision singers half her age can only hope to muster. “So many hits, you guys!” she exclaimed to the crowd, whipped into a frenzy by the first notes of “When I Think of You,” her first No. 1 hit, recorded when she was just 19. Such a shrugging admission of success, delivered as high-powered fans billowed her waist-length hair behind her like a superhero’s cape, might come off as aloof in the hands of another performer. When Jackson says it, though, it’s just facts.
The pace and tone of the show slowed down considerably in the second half, with Jackson dropping her skin-tight, jet-black body suits in favor of a so-very-’90s denim jacket, track pants, and Nirvana flannel knotted around the waist. It’s this part of the evening that really drove home just how long Jackson has been a part of our lives.
Interspersing selections from The Velvet Rope, Damita Jo, and 20 Y.O. with vibey slow jams (“Twenty Foreplay,” “That’s the Way Love Goes”), Jackson received one of her biggest ovations of the night for the Rhythm Nation smash “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” accompanied by snippets of the black-and-white music video featuring Djimon Hounsou and Antonio Sabàto Jr. Twenty-seven years ago, the latter was famous for being a handsome Calvin Klein model; today, he’s best known for his well-documented belief that Barack Obama is an undercover Muslim.
Yes, America has gotten much weirder since Jackson abruptly vanished from public life in 2012, cloistered in Al Mana’s native Qatar in an allegedly abusive relationship — a topic she tackled head-on with a heavy rendition of The Velvet Rope’s “What About,” accompanied by her dancers pantomiming scenes of drug use and domestic violence. But now that Ms. Jackson’s back, her influence on our contemporary stable of female megastars is more obvious than ever.
Regardless of which lanes our current divas occupy — the polished ferocity of Beyoncé, the sexual confidence of Rihanna, the artistry of Lady Gaga, the relatability of Katy Perry — Jackson made it possible for them all, and her undiminished prowess live is all the evidence we need. Get the point? Good. Let’s dance.