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Janet Jackson takes on the world in sizzling Allstate Arena show

Janet Jackson performs at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On Sunday, Janet Jackson was caught in the tailwinds of the announcement that Justin Timberlake — alone — was invited to play the Super Bowl 2018 half-time show, a return engagement after the duo’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” performance in 2004. By Thursday night, the R&B powerhouse was proving why she would have been the better choice.

Supported by nine incredible backup dancers and an equally consuming seven-piece band,  Jackson molded together a fortress of her greatest hits in under two hours at the Allstate Arena on Thursday night. Though some of the medleys were inexplicably rushed — it would have been far more satisfying to hear “Nasty,” “Feedback” and “Alright” given a complete treatment — Jackson gave the crowd exactly what it wanted. Which was everything — from the early hit “When I Think Of You” (recorded when she was just 19 years old) to the sultry and powerful “Black Eagle” off her latest album, “Unbreakable” (also the name of her suddenly and understandably cancelled tour last year in order to welcome her newborn son).

Re-branded the “State of the World” tour,  Jackson began the night with that 1989 hit, as well as “The Knowledge,” both from the standout effort, “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814,” a concept album which focused on that decade’s socio-political issues, exposing the poverty and racism that was plaguing marginalized communities.

Janet Jackson performs at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Though the album is now 28 years old, it’s as relevant today as ever, and the singer used the opportunity to bring its important message to the fold. The opening graphics melded news clips about the wars in Africa overdubbed with audio commentary about police brutality victims like Eric Garner, while bright red spotlights “splattered” like blood on several towers of video screens and Nazi signs blinded the front rows. “We want justice,” a voice declared over the speakers to a round of applause, which became Jackson’s entrance music as she walked out on stage brandishing a cane and “Rhythm Nation”-era military coat and combat boots.

Though Jackson was intent on pushing the needle forward, giving worthwhile performances of two of her latest hits, the wall-shaking “Burnitup!” and the sensual “No Sleep,” featuring rappers Missy Elliott and J. Cole, respectively, who appeared via video clips for the two cuts.

The video footage was one of the highlights of the night, including a mix of some of Jackson’s most famous videos, featuring the iconic beach romp “Love Will Never Do,” as well as an art piece with a close-up of Jackson smeared with makeup and tears. (The rawness of the latter video was a necessary counterpart to a series of over-rehearsed numbers and recorded vocal parts that sometimes felt robotic.) A similar sentiment happened after a dark and thought-provoking rendition of “What About,” a song about abusive relationships that featured dramatic interpretive dance accompaniment. “This is me,” Jackson said starkly as she she openly wept, hinting at the personal sagas behind her songs. Her finest moments came when she forgot about the stage she was on and just got real with the crowd — by night’s end emerging in jeans and a T-shirt for her fifth and most modest costume change.

Though Jackson comes from pop royalty, there has always been something incredibly tender in particular about her songwriting and delivery. Perhaps it’s from the school of acting she picked up as a child actress before moving into music, or maybe because she had to prove herself early on given the dynasty she was born into. But as Missy E says in “Burnitup”… “Miss Jackson, oh she wear the crown.” And no one can take it from her.

Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.

Set List
The Knowledge
State of the World
Nasty/Feedback/Miss You Much/Alright
Control/What Have You Done For Me Lately/The Pleasure Principle
Escapade/When I Think Of You/All For You
All Nite (Don’t Stop)
Love Will Never Do (Without You)
Twenty Foreplay
Where Are You Now/Come Back To Me/The Body That Loves You/Spending Time With You
No Sleeep
Gone Til It’s Gone
That’s The Way Love Goes
Island Life
Together Again
What About
Rhythm Nation

Black Eagle
New Agenda
Dammn Baby/I Get Lonely
Well Traveled