“I’m usually not very talkative,” Janet Jackson quipped toward the end of her two-hour performance at the Hollywood Bowl on Oct. 8, “but there’s so much history on this stage.” Indeed, the singer, who had just closed her main set with her 1989 hit “Rhythm Nation,” was surrounded by more than two dozen dancers and choreographers from throughout her career, who had joined her onstage to perform a massive, perfectly synchronized rendition of the song’s unmistakable dance routine.
With that disclaimer, she went on to spend nearly 15 minutes introducing each of her former collaborators by name, sometimes telling brief anecdotes, and allowing each the opportunity to bust out a few solo moves. It may have been the only obviously unscripted sequence of the night, but in a way it was very much of a piece with the entire evening, as Jackson managed to expertly pull off an all-stops stadium pop show while still imbuing the affair with plenty of her own idiosyncratic personality.
A resumption/expansion of her 2015 tour in support of then-new album “Unbreakable” (which was postponed for her pregnancy), Jackson’s “State of the World” tour has pared down the emphasis on that release and revamped the set with an eye toward 2017’s flashpoint issues. More than “Unbreakable,” the show is now largely modeled on her blockbuster “Rhythm Nation 1814” — at least half of that album’s songs were on the setlist, and its careful balance of dance anthems and political activism gave the show its focus.
Before “The Knowledge” kicked off the night, Jackson’s stage was obscured by three moving LCD screens that offered a cheat sheet of current social ills – the Syrian civil war, climate change, resurgent white supremacy — finally filling up with the names of unarmed black men killed by police. Later on, Jackson tackled 1997 deep-cut “What About” with dancers acting out domestic violence scenarios on the wings. Such earnest advocacy can come across awkwardly when dropped into the middle of an otherwise glitzy pop concert, but for Jackson’s part, the messages were woven deep into the fabric of the songs, and never did they come across as hectoring.
It helped, too, that Jackson seemed to know exactly how much provocation she could get away with, always ready with a “Get the point? Let’s dance” whenever patience might be tested. Flanked by as many as eight dancers, with a seven-piece band plugging away in the shadows on an upstage riser, Jackson was in nearly constant movement throughout the show, and the lighting was flashy yet thematically appropriate – a wash of purple for the Prince-like “Escapade,” a blinding single white spotlight for the 1986 empowerment anthem “Nasty.” The first part of the set was given over to hyperkinetic, back-to-back medleys of material from Jackson’s earlier albums, which could almost be read as a power move: not many singers can afford to quickly burn through eight top 10 hits in the first half hour of a concert. Her dancing took top priority during these segments, and any concerns that Jackson might be lacking a step due to age and recent maternity proved happily unfounded.
While she leaned on two background singers to help carry her through the aerobic early-going, Jackson gave her pipes a spotlight on the ballad-heavy middle stretch, particularly the rarely-performed “Twenty Foreplay.” (It also showcased perhaps the boldest of her three costume changes: a loose denim jacket, sweatpants and a flannel shirt tied around her waist.) Though strong, Jackson’s voice isn’t always the most layered of instruments, but it has a softness and a lilting sweetness that she managed to emphasize while still projecting well enough to cut through the clatter.
The show really got moving in the latter half, with Jackson balancing style and substance as she steadily ratcheted up the intensity, from the crowd singalong “That’s the Way Love Goes” to the sinuous house pulse of “Together Again” and hard rock-charged takes on “If” and “Scream,” all building to the obvious climax of “Rhythm Nation.”
While it took some work to spot under-30s in the audience, rarely did this show feel like a nostalgia trip. Even if the busy rhythms and tinny LinnDrum stomp of her early hits couldn’t have much less in common with the downbeat sound of today’s R&B, Jackson’s stamp is all over the contemporary pop landscape — and at 51, she proved she still has a few new lessons for her heirs.