Janet Jackson enthralled the Essence Music Festival audience Friday, kept them on their feet for more than two hours and reminded fans why seeing her in concert was worth waiting two years.
From the opening notes of “The Pleasure Principle” to “Control” to “Rhythm Nation,” the Grammy Award-winning singer enticed, teased and brought her fans on a journey through her No. 1 hits.
“She was unbelievable,” said Ed Downs of Miami. “It was definitely worth the wait. I’m happy to see her make a comeback. It was impressive.”
Jackson marked her return by closing the festival’s first night inside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. It was her first time at the festival, which runs through Sunday.
Former NBA player Anferenee Hardaway called Jackson’s performance “absolutely perfect,” and said no one could tell she had been off the concert circuit for any length of time.
“She definitely gets better with age,” he said, smiling.
Fans got a glimpse of Jackson’s new, sassy, short-cropped hair and her signature, shapely figure on the finale show of American Idol where she rocked classics like “Again” and “Nasty” and her latest release, “Nothing,” from the soundtrack of the movie, “Why Did I Get Married Too?,” which she also starred in.
But near the end of her show Friday, they were treated with even more as she depicted a risque, S&M scene with a male participant from the audience, whose hands and arms were strapped into a straight jacket as Jackson — in a flesh-toned body suit — worked him over, whip in hand.
He mouthed, “Thank you,” and couldn’t take his eyes off her, getting roars of approval, looks of envy and applause from the crowd.
“I loved it,” said Rose Ellerbee of New York. “It was one of the hottest shows I’ve seen and then she brought back so many memories. She didn’t lose a beat.”
Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications Inc., was as excited as anyone to hear Jackson in person. She said festival organizers had invited Jackson numerous times during the last 15 years and this year she finally accepted.
“Prayer works,” Ebanks said laughing.
The festival is celebrating the magazine’s 40th anniversary this year and Ebanks said they wanted to do so by putting the spotlight on strong, powerful female artists. In addition to Jackson, the lineup includes Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Monica, Keri Hilson, Chrisette Michele, Lalah Hathaway, Melanie Fiona, Estelle, Ledisi, Laura Izibor and New Orleans’ own Irma Thomas.
“It means a great deal for me to be in the company of such wonderful women, women who I have the pleasure of knowing personally,” Jackson said in an interview before her performance. “I’m especially honored to be able to play on a stage that also hosts Gladys Knight. She watched me grow up and I remember her being around the Motown family when I was a kid. It’s definitely an honor.”
Jackson, 44, said she has wanted to come to the festival previously but a jam-packed schedule didn’t allow it.
“It didn’t really permit me this time either, but because I really wanted to do it, we’ve worked it in,” she said.
Jackson also is preparing for another movie collaboration with actor-director Tyler Perry, starring in his upcoming film adaptation, “For Colored Girls.” She plays the “Red” character in the film, which is based on Ntozake Shange’s 1975 Tony Award-nominated play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
“I’m finally living my dream of acting,” said Jackson, who also starred in Perry’s film, “Why Did I Get Married?”.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful for all that God has bestowed upon me as far as singing is concerned, but I never thought I would be a singer,” she said. “My father wanted me to sing. I wanted to act. And, now, I’m finally living that dream.”
Still, Jackson said she has no plans to stop performing or making music but does see writing and developing scripts in her future. “I’m really drawn to the action stuff and I love sci-fi. That really drives me crazy,” she said.
The role of “author” also soon will be attached to her name. “True You,” a book chronicling Jackson’s lifelong struggles with weight and self-esteem, is set for release this fall.
“It’s not an autobiography, but I tell anecdotes about my life from when I was a kid to now,” she said. “Things happen that can affect a child for the rest of their life and I didn’t want to just speak to adults about these issues, so the book reflects that.”