Janet Jackson got down to business the instant the lights went down Monday night for her first Rupp Arena concert in more than 16 years.
First up was a newsreel-style montage of images underscoring a world riddled by racism, violence and environmental strife. Then a screen lifted just enough for the singer, decked out in layers of matronly black, a cane and a steely glare that was projected large enough for all of the 4,000 patrons gathered at Rupp to see.
Such a stance made Jackson seem less like a pop star and more like a headmistress. Similarly, the lesson she imparted was “The Knowledge,” one of the many socially charged meditations from her 1989 album, “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814.”
“Get the point?” she asked the crowd. “Good. Let’s dance.”
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That little interlude was from “Rhythm Nation,” too, as was the following “State of the World,” which gave her current 56-city North American tour, which Jackson is two weeks away from completing, its name. But by this point, the social vibe had infused the first of four distinct sections that made up the concert — specifically, an intensely physical groove party that covered most of Jackson’s initial hits from her 1986 breakthrough album, “Control.” The singer didn’t shy away from the physicality the segment demanded, either. At 51, she moved, danced and strutted with the tireless vigor of an artist half her age.
The second segment calmed things somewhat and presented Jackson sitting alone onstage to sing more pop-inflected works from the early 1990s, including “Where Are You Now” and “The Body That Loves You.” The dance team that initially helped her set the show in motion eventually returned, but the mood and rhythm was purposely less frantic. In fact, one of the program’s most arresting moments came when Jackson and her dancers sat on the lip of a stage platform for the 1997 tune “Together Again,” displaying a cordial, communal atmosphere that was refreshingly casual.
The mood turned rockish for the third segment as guitar squalls eventually led to a brief cameo by the singer’s late brother Michael by way of the 1995 video for “Scream.” But the groove quickly reassembled for sister Jackson to close out the set with the still-affirmative title song to “Rhythm Nation.”
The fourth segment was the encore section that allowed the singer to loosen up long enough to introduce her band and dance squad before zeroing in on the more modernistic groove of “Dammn Baby,” the evening’s most commanding entry from her newest album, 2015’s “Unbreakable.”
What worked through all this was Jackson’s beaming performance profile. She remained a compelling presence onstage through all the concert’s various emotive stages. She proved a formidable dance chieftain and social commentator but also a sisterly companion for her onstage entourage during the show’s lighter moments.
What didn’t work was the singing. Whether it was the program’s often fearsome ensemble sound, its reliance on groove over lyrical play or simply the delicate nature of Jackson’s voice, it was tough to make out much of anything that came out of her mouth. Given the show’s near constant movement, it was almost as if this was an accepted loss from the onset.
Also, it was a little disappointing to hear so many of Jackson’s vintage hits become truncated versions and shoehorned into medleys. Granted, she has 30-plus years of material to fit into a program — and, yes, we’re all still part of the Rhythm Nation — but maybe letting some of these still-vital songs play out would better serve artist and audience alike.