On its release 25 years ago, on May 18, 1993, there was nothing lower-case about Janet Jackson’s album “janet.” except its title.
Jackson’s previous two albums for A&M Records, “Control” (1986) and “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” (1989), had reached No. 1 on the national charts and been certified for sales of 11 million total units. No longer a modestly successful R&B singer, she was a major crossover talent whose commercial profile had begun to rival that of her older brother Michael.
An intense bidding war for Jackson’s services ensued in 1991, with Virgin Records prevailing with a then-unprecedented and headline-making bid that the label’s founder Richard Branson later identified as $25 million. (On the heels of that pact, Michael Jackson would renegotiate his own contract with Sony Music for an even more astronomical sum.)
Branson, who had to scramble to assemble the financing for the deal, wrote in 2016, “Signing Janet would confirm Virgin Records’ position as the world’s sexiest record company. I was damned if I was going to let the caution of our bankers stop us.”
In the face of Jackson’s track record and Virgin’s huge commitment, expectations for her next album were high in the business, and one might imagine that intense pressure to replicate the previous successes would be felt by the vocalist and her producing and songwriting partners Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who had helmed the A&M hits (with Jellybean Johnson, a fellow former member of the Minneapolis band the Time).
But Jam notes coolly today, “I remember that she had signed a big deal, but for us, in the studio, that really didn’t matter a whole lot. My analogy was always, if you’re a baseball player and somebody gives you a huge contract, when you go up in front of a pitcher all you’re trying to do is hit the ball.”
Like the preceding two collections, “janet.” was tracked at Flyte Tyme, Jam and Lewis’ studio in Edina, MN, outside the Twin Cities. Jam says, “Part of the magic of the ‘janet.’ album was that it was recorded in Minneapolis, so we didn’t have any interference…You couldn’t just drop by the studio. Which was great for us.”
Today, Jam sees the writing on “janet.” as part of a continuum of personal and artistic development seen in Jackson’s earlier records with the production team.
“What you’re watching is a natural progression of a woman who’s young and just starting off [on “Control”], and then growing in confidence, recognizing things in the world around her that bother her on ‘Rhythm Nation,’ and then someone who knows herself a little bit better, who’s in a happy place and in love. You’re watching an evolution, which is I think part of her appeal over the years. People literally watched her grow up on records.”
He adds, “The record just reflects where Janet was in her life at that point in time. Looking back on it, we always said that the ‘Rhythm Nation’ album was our ‘What’s Going On.’ The ‘janet.’ album was our ‘Let’s Get It On.’ – the progression that Marvin Gaye did.”
Indeed, several of the songs on “janet.” – “You Want This,” “Throb,” “The Body That Loves You” – and some of the interstitial interludes that connect the album’s tracks afforded an eyebrow-raising peek behind Jackson’s bedroom door. (In 1991, she had married actor Rene Elizondo, whose hands could be seen cupping his wife’s bare breasts on an uncropped version of the “janet.” album art that ran on the cover of Rolling Stone in September 1993.)
Some of the original material was heated by old-school samples from James Brown, the Supremes, Kool & the Gang, Stevie Wonder and the Average White Band. The album’s lone cover, a version of blue-eyed soul singer Johnny Daye’s 1967 Stax single “What’ll I Do For Satisfaction,” was Jellybean Johnson’s only production contribution to the set.
While “Control” and “Rhythm Nation” were made by the Jackson, the core production team and a platoon of session contributors, “janet.” exited the team’s comfort zone by employing some new and unexpected collaborators.
“That was Janet’s idea,” Jam says. “Up to that point, we hadn’t really done any recording with anyone outside of Janet and ourselves…We wanted to think outside the box a little bit.”
He continues, “Janet had such a rich history of music growing up. She loved musicals, she loved opera, she had such a wide palette, and she said, ‘I’d love to do something with Kathleen Battle.’”
One never would have imagined that Battle, the Metropolitan Opera star, would be a simpatico vocal foil for Jackson, but the diva made her first appearance on a pop record with a hypnotic counterpoint contribution to the track “This Time.”
“She obviously just killed it,” Jam says, laughing at the recollection. “We just had her sing — we didn’t really tell her what to sing. She enjoyed it, because she got a chance to improvise her part. The one little signature line that we ended up using was amongst a whole bunch of different things that she did. We took the vocal and kind of manipulated it – not changing what she did, but just placing it.”
Public Enemy’s front man Chuck D became an integral part of the album’s most politically pointed track, “New Agenda,” authoring a fierce rap that gave the track its keen edge.
“We’re both huge Public Enemy fans,” Jam says. “‘New Agenda’ was really her concept. I always want to make the guests feel at home…and studying the tracks that Chuck had done with Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad, [we noticed] there were a lot of samples, and there was always a kind of dissonant tension to all those tracks. Literally, that track was like the kitchen sink.”
The rapper’s impact extended beyond his vocal work, Jam adds: “Chuck became a very important part of ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’ becoming the first single.”
As the album was nearing completion, Jackson and Virgin’s American co-presidents Jeff Ayeroff and Jordan Harris were leaning toward “If,” a guitar-driven slab of new jack swing, as the leadoff single. Jam and Lewis were stumping for “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a ballad that rode a sampled lick from James Brown’s “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.”
In the studio, Jam and Jackson played the songs for Chuck D and asked for an opinion.
Jam remembers, “Chuck goes, ‘Yeah, man. ‘”If,” that’s like a Janet record, man. I can see the video in my head right now. That’s gonna be crazy.’ Janet’s looking at me like, ‘Mm hm, see?’ And then he goes, ‘But that other record – that other record reminds me of when Sade releases a record. Not a lot of hype, but all of a sudden that record is out and you’re goin’, ‘Man, who is that?’ And I looked at Janet like, ‘Mm hm.’
“So I said to him, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Man, I like that ballad, man. Nobody’s expecting that, man. I think I’d go with that.’ So anyway, Janet said, ‘Cool. That’s the single.’ It set the table perfectly for us.”
“That’s the Way Love Goes” spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts and four weeks at the apex of the R&B charts and became Jackson’s second platinum single; on the pop side, it matched Maria Carey’s “Dreamlover” for longevity on the singles chart. It became the first of six top-10 pop singles drawn from the album, which sold more than 7 million copies domestically and 14 million worldwide.
Not only did “janet.” serve to justify the enormous investment made by Virgin, but it offered artistic validation for Jackson as well: “That’s the Way Love Goes” reaped a Grammy in 1994 as best R&B song for the singer and her collaborators.
Jam – who went on to co-write and co-produce four more multi-platinum and platinum albums with Jackson — views that achievement as a harbinger of the contemporary scene, where creative forces ranging from Beyoncé to Janelle Monae are making their mark.
“We’re certainly in an enlightened time right now when we’re recognizing the power and the talent of females, producers and engineers and musicians. Janet was doing it before anybody, really, at that level, and I don’t think she gets recognized enough for that.”