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Janet Jackson has high hopes for new album

Can singer restore her image, rejuvenate her career?
/ Source: The Associated Press

In case you’ve forgotten about the many magical moments in Janet Jackson’s illustrious career, she’s ready to remind you of each one — if you buy her new CD.

In the booklet and the artwork accompanying “20 Y.O.” — which, not so coincidentally, celebrates the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough album, “Control” — there are photo montages of the superstar at her most popular.

The images recall her socially conscious “Rhythm Nation” era, the sexy “Janet” album phase, her emotionally painful “Velvet Rope” stage and her sexually charged “All for You” days.

Of course, perhaps her most famous picture — Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” — is not included. And after disappointing sales of her last album, released a few weeks after the 2004 Super Bowl, Jackson is hoping that image won’t end up defining her formerly white-hot career.

“I think she feels very rejuvenated,” says Jimmy Jam, her longtime collaborator. “She feels like in a way she’s 20 years old again, that it is sort of a rebirth for her, a restart.”

Jackson, now 40, has been one of music’s most bankable, captivating and enduring stars since 1986’s “Control” — the album that showed she wasn’t just Michael Jackson’s baby sister, but a dazzling entertainer in her own right. Since then, Jackson has racked up a string of multiplatinum albums and No. 1 hits, and her influence — from her acrobatic dance moves to her birdlike singing voice — can be seen in the careers of artists ranging from Britney Spears to Ciara.

But Jackson hasn’t had a bona fide smash since 2001’s “All For You.”

Can she top the charts again?“Damita Jo,” her last album, was supposed to re-establish Jackson at the top of the charts after a three-year break. But it was released soon after the uproar over her nipple flash during the Super Bowl halftime show (which she insists was accidental). For the first time in her career, Jackson had to weather a barrage of bad publicity and ill will.

MTV stopped playing her videos; radio cooled to her music. But perhaps most troubling for Jackson, few seemed to miss her absence from the spotlight. The most attention she got was of a tabloid nature, including for her substantial weight gain (which she has since shed, along with most of her clothing, as her plethora of current magazine covers indicate).

Jackson’s new album, out Tuesday, is an attempt to restore her image as a sexy, vivacious hitmaker. But while she still owns sexy, the charts may be another story.

Her new single, the midtempo groove “Call On Me” featuring raps from Nelly, got lackluster radio play when it debuted a few weeks ago, though it rebounded on black radio and went to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop singles chart.

“She has more of the steady stable fan bases I’ve ever seen in recorded music,” said Stephen Hill, an executive vice president at BET, where Jackson has been in heavy rotation. “It’s always a testament to someone’s strength and longevity when they can actually make records that people care about 20 years later.”

But unlike her co-star in the Super Bowl debacle, Justin Timberlake, Jackson does not have a No. 1 pop hit. Top 40 radio, once her domain, hasn’t given much support to her recent music. And there hasn’t been the kind of anticipation about this album that Timberlake, Beyonce, or Christina Aguilera garnered with their recent releases.

Entertainment Weekly recently described Jackson as an “aging pop star” while ranking her new album 22nd of its top 25 most-anticipated fall releases — after folks like Fantasia, relative unknowns The Hold Steady and aging rockers The Who (though she did make it above geriatric legend Jerry Lee Lewis).

Says EW senior editor Rob Brunner: “The attention she’s getting now is mostly about her appearance, which is not usually a good sign for someone looking to be taken seriously.”

Brunner also wasn’t too impressed with Jackson’s homage to the past with the new CD: “Anytime you’re looking back to a 20-year-old album to make yourself relevant, it’s not exactly great.”

But he also noted her long history of making hits, and said any lingering image problems after the Super Bowl incident “can be erased with a great song.”

Jam, who along with partner Terry Lewis has worked with Jackson since her “Control” days, believes “20 Y.O.” is chock full of them. The album features a typical Jackson mix of dance tracks, sexy, after-dark grooves and heartfelt ballads.

Besides Jam and Lewis, the album also features another collaborator — Jackson’s boyfriend, hitmaker Jermaine Dupri, who is also president of urban music at her label, Virgin Records (a unit of EMI Group PLC). On “Damita Jo,” Dupri and Jackson made a conscious effort not to work together; this time he’s an executive producer.

“I think their relationship during ’Damita Jo’ ... hadn’t matured to the point where he felt comfortable to step in,” Jam says.

Dupri was one of the main producers and architects on Mariah Carey’s massively successful comeback record, 2005’s “The Emancipation of Mimi” (which Jam & Lewis were also a part of).

Whether Dupri’s presence on “20 Y.O.” will have a similar effect is unclear. However, after the Super Bowl backlash, Jam says Jackson has downplayed multiplatinum success as a requirement for her overall happiness.

“It was definitely hard for her,” Jam said. “I think you learn a lot about yourself and you look inward. I think she’s probably a lot more spiritual person now. And I think she also realizes in the true sense of control ... there are some things that are out of your control, and you just have to do your thing.”