Moments before she took the Sprint Center stage on Thursday night, Janet Jackson made certain her crowd of nearly 9,000 knew this show and her State of the World Tour were about something more than the vast, deep catalog of one of the biggest music icons of her generation.
The show opened with a video that unflinchingly addressed an array of hot-button issues, including Black Lives Matter, refugees, white supremacy and domestic terrorism. She followed that with the opening song of her 105-minute set with “The Knowledge,” a track from her ground-breaking and muckraking “Rhythm Nation 1814” album that addresses the issues of education and literacy, ignorance and bigotry. She followed that with another “Rhythm” track, “State of the World,” a song about a homeless boy and his hard-knock life.
Jackson was backed by a large troupe of young, athletic and acrobatic dancers, a DJ, a four-man band and two backup singers. She turned 51 in May, just four months after she gave birth to her first-born child, yet all night she kept up with her energetic entourage, flashing the kinds of slick dance moves that still run in the family, accompanied by a light show that was at times dazzling.
The mood changed abruptly after “State of the World,” from a socio-political anthem to “Burnitup!” a funky and rambunctious party anthem that featured a video cameo from Missy Elliott.
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The crowd before her was impressive, multi-racial and multi-generational, primarily women and girls, but there were plenty of men in the place, too. Most were on their feet throughout the show, dancing, bopping or swaying to the kind of irresistible deep-funk dance grooves that fortified so many of her more than two dozen Top 10 hits.
She played most of her favorites and best-known songs, many embedded in medleys of varying lengths. The first of those opened with “Nasty,” her defiant screed against stalking and sexual harassment, a message that almost gets lost in its percussive thunder. She fused that with “Feedback,” “Miss You Much,” “Alright” and “You Want This.”
After that, she addressed the crowd directly, asking everyone if they were “ready to party,” as if they hadn’t been. Then she detonated the place with another medley that opened with “Control” and included “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” which ignited one of the more joyous sing-alongs of the night.
After a third medley (“Escapade”/“When I Think of You”/“All for You”) and album-true versions of “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” everyone took a powder while her DJ spun some tunes, an interlude that also included an instrumental version of “Again” that accompanied a black-and-white video shoot of Jackson.
She returned having changed from elegant black fashions into a denim jacket and sweat pants, an ensemble that didn’t quite match the mood of libidinous songs like “Twenty Foreplay” and the final medley, “Where Are You Now”/“Come Back to Me”/“The Body That Loves Me.”
Other highlights: “No Sleeep,” which featured a video cameo from J. Cole, and “Island Life,” during which Jackson weaved in a swath of Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat.”
But the song that resounded more than any other was “What About,” a “Velvet Rope” track about domestic violence. During the performance, four of her dancers split up into two couples, and the men choreographed physical abuse upon the women. It was convincing and disturbing — and appropriate, given the #metoo campaign that has swept social media recently and the rumors surrounding Jackson’s divorce proceedings. When the song was over, she and her dancers lined up and took a deserved bow as the crowd rained cheers and applause upon them.
She closed her first set with the lustfest “If,” which was preceded by a wild, shredding electric guitar solo, then, now dressed again in all black, “Rhythm Nation,” which sent the place into an ecstatic orbit.
After another interlude, Jackson returned, dressed now in jeans and a short-sleeved turtleneck sweater, to bring the evening to a close and introduce everyone on stage and give her fans a warm thank you.
She closed with “Well Traveled,” a hymn about wanderlust. It felt anticlimactic after what preceded it: Songs about love, sex, romance and heartfelt sermons about serious issues, like racism and sex abuse.
Jackson is well into her fifth decade as a performer and a decade beyond her commercial peak. Yet Thursday night, she felt as vital and relevant as ever: a woman who refuses to relinquish power or control and a new mother deeply concerned about the world her child will grow up in.