Concert Review: Janet Jackson at the Schottenstein Center

Erica Thompson

What statement does a 51-year-old music superstar have left to make in the midst of a 35-year career marked by 11 albums, 10 number-one hits and a slew of iconic music videos? If you’re Janet Jackson, you can just show all facets of yourself — from the serious to the sensual — without the spectacle. And that’s what the singer did during a stop at the Schottenstein Center on Tuesday as part of her “State of the World Tour.”

Having renamed the tour following a hiatus to give birth to her son, Eissa, Jackson highlighted political content from her catalog, including “The Knowledge,” from Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814, and “State of the World,” from Unbreakable. The singer opened the show with those two songs, following a dramatic video montage focused on social issues and featuring a list of unarmed African-American men killed by police.

That encapsulated the most political section of Jackson’s show. Next, she dove into an impressive series of hits, from “Nasty” and “Miss You Much” to “All for You” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” Once known for showing off her famously toned physique in revealing attire, she kept covered up in black pants and a black, long-sleeved top.

Sultry but not over-the-top sexy, Jackson strutted across the stage, flashing her signature, dazzling smile and flipping her long ponytail. She was accompanied by a crew of dancers in all white, which she called her “tribe.” To engage in the “Janet Jackson experience” also means engaging with her dancers and choreographers, who have always been an integral part of the package; alumni from her tours and videos have almost as much name recognition as Jackson.

But while the “State of the World” dancers were certainly talented and appeared to be a close-knit group, some of the spark was missing compared with previous “tribes,” which overflowed with personality and technique. For her part, Jackson kept up with the dancers, falling in and out of the choreography as she pleased — her commitment to the signature moves from the “You Want This” video elicited a joyous response from the crowd — instead of dancing through entire songs.

But her understated approach did not take away from her captivating performance — a sign of a seasoned entertainer who knows the choreography in her sleep, but is not sleepwalking through the execution. Nor did she have to rely on auxiliary distractions. Gone were the elaborate costume changes (which she famously filmed during the HBO broadcast of her 2001-2002 “All for You” tour) and colorful props she’d often wheel out for songs like “Escapade.” And no lap dances were given to audience members.

For the second section of the show, Jackson returned to the stage to sing a handful of slow songs such as “Twenty Foreplay” and “The Body That Loves You” while sitting on a stool. It was a familiar staple of her tours, though noticeably absent was the towel she once needed to dab the sweat worked up from hard dancing. But, as with previous shows, it wasn’t the most enthralling section, and the subsequent performances of songs such as the J. Cole-assisted “No Sleep” and classic “Got ‘til it’s Gone” — featuring some impressive, smooth dance moves — were a welcome change. “That’s the Way Love Goes,” remixed with Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat,” was a standout moment.

Jackson wrapped up with a fiery trio of songs — the unexpected “What About,” a moving commentary on domestic violence, followed by “If” and “Rhythm Nation,” bringing her political message full circle. The encore, including three songs from Unbreakable, was a bit underwhelming, if only because the material was unfamiliar. But it was fitting that she closed with “Well Traveled.”

“I’ve come a long way,” sang Jackson, a confident artist who doesn’t have to put on an extravagant stage production or dance like she’s 21 to cement her status as a legend. “Got a long way to go, ’cause I'm so well-traveled/Wherever life takes me I'm willing to go.”