Janet Jackson’s ‘janet.’ Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
“We had the kind of night where morning comes too soon…” So goes the seductive spoken intro that launched Janet Jackson’s fifth album, janet. — that’s a little j with an emphatic period — released on May 18, 1993. Veering from the socially conscious spirit of her previous blockbuster, 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Jackson returned with a fresh sound and look, free-spirited confidence and a willingness to get personal. The new music was everything from pure pop to candles-in-the-bedroom grooves, balancing the sweet, the erotic and the playful.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album that launched nine singles, Idolator spoke to Jimmy Jam, one-half of Jackson’s legendary production team, Jam and [Terry] Lewis. Looking back on the recording today, Jam feels the muse is obvious.
“Janet was in love. My partner [Lewis] was with someone who he was very much in love with at the time, and I was with someone I was very much in love with,” Jam says. “Love was in the air… when we did Rhythm Nation, everybody called it the What’s Going On album, and then they called janet. the Let’s Get It On album.”
Like a moth to the flame, burned by the fire
What eventually became the janet. album would be Jackson’s first under a new multimillion dollar contract with Virgin Records; all eyes were on the trio as they began to work at Jam and Lewis’s studio in Minneapolis. Throughout the fall of 1992, the three of them began creating the music what would become a sprawling album of varied styles: 14 songs and 13 interludes.
“That’s The Way Love Goes”
For both Jam and Lewis today, janet.’s definitive track is the silky, chilled “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Initially, though, Jackson didn’t love the instrumental demo. Determined to win her over, Jam slipped it onto a cassette he gave Jackson for her winter break in Anguilla. When she returned in January, he remembers, “She says ‘We gotta work on that track… I wasn’t hearing it, but now I totally hear it.’”
Jackson, who stayed with Jam (real name: James Harris) and his wife during the sessions, soon buzzed his home intercom at one in the morning. “She said, ‘Are you awake?’ I said ‘Umm, I am now!’ She says, ‘I got the idea for the song. That’s the way love goes… but in a good way.’ We went and recorded it that day and it sort of set the tone for what the album was.“
By this time, Virgin label heads had already flown to Minneapolis to check on their new signing. Jam, Lewis and Jackson played them a rough cut of the industrial dance/sex epic “If” and the label latched onto it as the first single. Jam and Lewis felt differently. When their star later flew to Los Angeles on business, they had their chance to convince everyone that “That’s The Way Love Goes” was the real first single. Jam talks about how they pressed Jackson to make the pitch:
“Janet goes, ‘Yeah, you’re right!’ Then she comes back a week later and says, ‘Well… guys, it looks like ‘If’ is going to be the single. The record label feels it could have a great dance video…’ So we were finishing up recording later with Chuck D and we played him and [hip hop producer] Hank Shocklee the two songs. They said, ‘If. That’s like Janet saying I’m back!’ So Janet’s looking at us like ‘See? See!?’ And then he (Chuck) goes, ‘But that other song… you know when Sade releases a record and it’s not like a bunch of hype? She just slips it out there and you say, ‘Oh my God listen to this!?’ It introduces itself.” And we’re looking at Janet like, ‘See!?’”
Jackson enlisted her then-secret husband Rene Elizondo to direct the video. “To me, no one else could have directed that,” Jam says. The gold-hued clip, which featured Jackson hanging with her friends and dancers (including an unknown-at-the-time Jennifer Lopez) was the most accessible version of the star the public had ever seen. “He captured [her life] because he knew what that was.” The single went to #1 on the Hot 100, soon followed by the suits’ pick, the Diana Ross-sampling “If.”
She’s strong and that’s a fact
Stylistically, janet. is brazenly ambitious, nailing rock (“What’ll I Do”), house disco (“Throb”), delicate balladry (“Again”) and even pop-rock opera on the vengeful, dramatic “This Time,” which featured a soaring guest vocal by opera diva Kathleen Battle.
“The people Janet chose to collaborate with were people who inspired her, not necessarily people that were ‘Well, we’ll put them on the record and it will sell.’ That was really not part of the thought process,” says Jam. An element in her increasing confidence, he believes, was filming her role in John Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice.
“Poetic Justice was pivotal to where she was at in her life, “says Jam. “It was a great experience for her, being around Tupac and John Singleton, Maya Angelou. She was hungry to make a record after that. You have to be inspired by something, to have something you want to say and, to me, Poetic Justice… opened her mind to a lot of things.”
There’s a clear line connecting Jackson’s poetry-writing character, Justice, and the lyrical content of “New Agenda,” janet.’s most overt political statement and, 20 years on, the album’s most bracing track. “There’s a million samples in there [including Average White Band and Stevie Wonder],” Jam says. “The idea was to make it sonically sound like a Public Enemy record. Hank Shocklee took these dissonant samples that shouldn’t have gone together and somehow made it all work.”
Jackson enlisted Public Enemy rapper Chuck D to write and perform a feminist rap. She told a magazine at the time, “When I hear Chuck, it’s like I’m hearing someone teaching.” And there’s Janet’s own voice, inspired by writers like Angelou. “There’s nothing you can do, accept me for who I am now,” she sang, “African American woman, I stand tall with pride.”
Create the mood for love, sensual physical love
The album, in classic Janet style, ends with a run of baby makers — a series of slow jams that includes “Any Time, Any Place,” the regretful “Where Are You Now? and “The Body That Loves You.”
“Any Time, Any Place”
Of the latter song, Jam says, “I thought her lyrics were so good. She was really into Brazilian music at the time and she said ‘I’d love to do something with just acoustic guitar.’ You have to realize how great it is… [she’s] not showing you a hit record and going ‘Make me something that sounds like this.’ She’s bringing you Gilberto Gil…. these different things. If you’re a producer worth your salt, you’re hearing this and going, ‘How can I give something this feel and make it her? Because if you give it the right feel, it is all her.”
Twenty years on, the influence of janet. is literally all over the radio. Like the samples Jam and Lewis layered into the album, “Any Time, Any Place” is now sampled on Kendrick Lamar’s recent hit “Poetic Justice.”
“My son had never heard the actual janet. record,” says Jam. “He kept going, ‘So that part that goes like that, did you do that?’ and I said, ‘Yeah that’s on the original record.’ I remember thinking [of Lamar’s track], that’s an interesting treatment… not sure if it’s gonna work, but then hearing it on the radio, it’s a natural. Janet is a fan of the record. “
Hold on baby
For the album cover, Jackson chose what appeared to be a simple head shot. When the image was fully revealed, it featured a topless Jackson, with Elizondo’s hands cupping her bare breasts. Provocative, yes, but the serenity on her face gave the image a warm sensuality.
“Rene was such a brilliant collaborator,” Jam says. “During the time that it was good in their relationship, he was so good for her, he was such a creative guy. It was his idea, to take that kind of shot. He not only had the vision, but he also had her trust and her love. He was a great photographer; he was a great video director. He had a great conceptual eye.“
“Because Of Love”
Because of love, we are together
The legacy of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s work with Janet isn’t taken for granted. “I feel so blessed as a producer to have a muse like that to create stuff with, because there’s no barrier,” Jam says. Prior to Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, Jam, Lewis and Janet had finished four new songs. “I listened to them [recently] and they’re really good. I think her fans would love it, get it, and understand what it is. It’s not trying to be anything it’s not, it’s just good Janet songs… and she knows, we’ve talked… she just got married and she’s enjoying life. She’s making noises about wanting to do an album. But we will see. If I’m her, I’m just living life and enjoying myself. Whenever she’s ready to do it, we’re ready, and it’s just a matter of whether we see eye to eye on what that should be.”
Until that time arrives, fans have Jackson’s amazing imperial run of hit albums to revisit. Jam is clearly proud of janet. and the memories it evokes.
“Me and Terry were the beneficiaries of the Janet that walked into the studio with this kind of fresh approach to things, and an excitement to make a record,” says the producer. “Everything was just really good in everybody’s life. Everybody was on a creative high.”
Idolator will be hosting a janet. re-listening party on Twitter today (Monday, May 20) at 4 p.m. ET. For more commentary from Jimmy Jam about the album, check out Stephen Sears’ blog, The Middle Eight.