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NEW YORK (Billboard) - After failing to crack the million mark with her last two albums, Janet Jackson is wary of using the "c" word to describe her upcoming release, "Discipline," which hits stores on February 26.
"I think a comeback is when you leave and then you ... come back," Jackson said with a laugh during a recent interview. "People are always quick to use that word 'comeback,' but I never went anywhere, really."
"Discipline" marks her 10th studio disc, and her debut release for Island Def Jam after more than a decade at Virgin Records. Her last album, 2006's "20 Y.O.," stalled at 648,000 units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while 2004's "Damita Jo" moved 999,000.
After a round of underwhelming singles from those albums, the lead single "Feedback" has been gaining momentum at urban and pop radio formats, thanks to its robotic bassline and voice-modulated effect tailor-made for the clubs. It jumped 32 places to No. 52 on the latest Billboard Hot 100.
"This song is definitely one of those feel-good, make-you-get-up-out-your-seat, maybe dance-on-the-table-a-little-bit type songs," said Deon Cole, music director of urban WPEG Charlotte, N.C.
If "Feedback" keeps rising, it could become Jackson's first top-10 hit since 2001's "Someone to Call My Lover," which peaked at No. 3.
Heavier on dance tracks than seductive jams (Jackson's other forte), "Discipline" is classic Janet. The title track is one of her typical frisky bedroom cuts, featuring lyrics like, "I need some discipline tonight/I've been very bad" and "Daddy, make me cry."
Yet, there is an air of newness to the album that is partly the result of Jackson creatively straying from her longtime go-to production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
"I was hoping we could do something together, but sometimes you have to explore and kind of kick yourself out of the nest," Jackson said of her decision to escape her production comfort zone. "It was something that I needed to do for myself, but I think (Jam and Lewis) felt it coming, too, 'cause I kept working with a different producer here or there."
In addition to production by Jackson's longtime boyfriend Jermaine Dupri, Island's head of urban music, "Discipline" also features tracks by newcomers the-Dream and Tricky Stewart ("Umbrella," "Bed"), Lil Jon, Stargate and songwriters Ne-Yo and Johnta Austin. Rodney Jerkins produced and wrote "Feedback" with Dernst Emile. The beats and lyrics that these contributors initially presented to Jackson were, serendipitously, true to her choreography-based roots.
"I never had to tell them, 'No, this is what it should be,"' said Jackson. "I felt like they really did their homework and whatever they felt a Janet song was -- rock, pop or urban -- they hit it right on the nose."
With "Discipline," the aim was to innovate without totally reinventing the wheel. "There are some things that maybe I'll try for right now and some things I'll wait later on to try. It's (about) sticking to who I am. Even lyrically, something that I've experienced or someone that I know has experienced, it has to relate to my life and myself."
Starting her musical career at age 16, Jackson released her first five albums through A&M, including her self-titled 1982 debut and her 1986 breakthrough "Control," on which she first started collaborating with Jam and Lewis. But it wasn't until 1989's "Rhythm Nation 1814" that multiplatinum sales started becoming a norm. For 1993's "janet.," which has sold more than 7 million copies, Jackson relocated to Virgin and revealed a sexier image, with more sensual music to boot. The reinvention yielded her most successful single, "That's the Way Love Goes," which topped the Hot 100 for eight straight weeks. Subsequent albums "The Velvet Rope" and "All for You" each sold more than 3 million units.
While Jackson's record sales have declined in recent years, the most drastic dip occurred in the aftermath of her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. This is, of course, another hurdle -- perhaps the hurdle -- from which Jackson has been struggling to recover.
Though the incident is a bygone, it is still the elephant in every room she enters. Its aftershocks were felt not only in the Federal Communication Commission's crackdown on media smut, but also in her album sales.
Despite bowing at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, "Damita Jo" was largely overshadowed by the Super Bowl fiasco. According to Jackson, the project was poorly handled.
"Not to badmouth Virgin, 'cause it was my family for a very long time, but they kind of just lost touch," she said. "To only have support of the urban department and for (those two albums) to sell what they did, there's a lot to say for that. (At Island) they all come together, and one department knows what the other department is doing. You need that to really move forward. It's teamwork, and that's what Virgin lost."
Back when Dupri was president of urban music at Virgin, he'd expressed similar sentiments of nonsupport, which was part of the reason he left once the dust of "20 Y.O." had settled. According to him, the label felt it was the music that was the barrier.
"It was described to me that the music wasn't appropriate and that's what was making these outlets or certain places that usually would support her not willing to play the record," Dupri said. "I know better than that. In the music business, you at least get a shot."
But sources close to "20 Y.O." note that since Dupri was president of Virgin's urban department at the time of the album's release, he controlled virtually every aspect of the marketing and promotion of the project. (Virgin did not respond to a request for comment.)
Regardless, in February 2007, when Dupri was appointed to head Island's urban music department, Jackson soon followed. But while Dupri and Reid worked together on "Discipline," Dupri, who executive-produced "Damita Jo" and "20 Y.O.," willingly loosened the reins this time around, although he ended up producing all the vocals for the album.
"It's a crazy role for me, because I want the right things for her as my girl. I also want the right things for her as a label, but I also am the label president," said Dupri, who two years ago masterminded the comeback of another Virgin refugee, Mariah Carey.
As with "20 Y.O.," where fans got to design their own album covers, Jackson is offering another DIY promotional campaign for "Discipline." In January, her official Web site (www.janetjackson.com) launched a contest for fans to create their own homemade videos for "Feedback" and post them on her YouTube channel, Destination Discipline.
In mid- to late summer, Jackson hopes to tour in support of "Discipline." She avoids endorsement deals, instead using acting to supplement her musical pursuits. She starred in Tyler Perry's recent box office chart-topper "Why Did I Get Married?"
"I like more the creative aspect of things as opposed to coming home with a headache every night with stress up to here," Jackson says. "It feels great, because I still love what I do, and I'm not about to stop. It's nice to be able to do it but even nicer that the people still yearn for you after 20-plus years -- that they still want to know what's to come."