By Gail Mitchell
Billboard Magazine, September 9th 2006
‘This is my private celebration because truly, for the first time in my life, I’m very happy’
Super diva. Very few artists can legitimately lay claim to that title. Fewer still can sustain an extraordinary career that, despite a few bumps along the way, has fans anticipating your every move after 20 years. Two decades after the debut of Janet Jackson’s career-making album, ‘Control’, fans are eagerly awaiting the Sept. 26 release of her new Virgin Records set, “20 Y.O.” (formerly titled “20 Years Old”). The album reunites Jackson with original “Control” collaborators Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and pairs her for the first time with Grammy Award-winning producer Jermaine Dupri (who is also her boyfriend). Some would expect a super diva to possess an exalted sense of self. After all, this is the singer behind an album that yielded no fewer than six crossover hits that exuded female empowerment, songs like “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, “When I Think of You” and “Let’s Wait Awhile”.
Then, three years later, with 1989’s “Rhythm Nation 1814”, she became the first artist to produce seven top five hits from one album, trumping big brother Michael. [Still unmatched in 2016.]
After jumping to Virgin from A&M for a reported $32 million, Jackson continued her platinum-selling ways with “janet.” (1993), ‘The Velvet Rope” (1997), “All For You” (2001) and “Damita Jo” (2004). Along the way, there have been movies (“Poetic Justice”, “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”), TV (“Good Times”, “Diff’rent Strokes”, “Fame”), sexy and provocative (read: topless) magazine covers (1993’s Rolling Stone and Vibe this September), a bout with depression, a legal battle over her musical income and the now-infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
Yet the Janet Jackson who sat down with Billboard fits anything but the diva prototype. The baby sister of the Jackson family was shy but forthcoming with her answers, at various times humorous and self-deprecating. She says she’s at the happiest time in her life, but still in control and determined to take her career even higher, with one proviso: “I’ve got to have some fun”, she says.
How would you assess your career to this point?
It’s still a great ride. Along the way there have been highlights but thankfully not a dull moment. Looking back, the highlights include the albums “Control”, “All For You”, “janet.” And “Rhythm Nation 1814”. Hanging with Tupac, Regina King and Joe Torry while filming “Poetic Justice”.
Then there’s “Velvet Rope” where I showed more of my feminine side. That was a crossroads for me: sharing what I’d been going through personally and how I felt about what was happening in the world. That turned out to be a very intimate record.
Then there’s this new album. It’s a highlight not just because I’m celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Control”. Once again, as back then, I’m making my own decisions.
This will sound corny, as if it’s not me talking, but it hasn’t always been easy, and I’m proud of “her” (Jackson refers to herself in the third person). This is my private celebration because truly, for the first time in my life, I’m very happy.
Was the creative process for this album any different from its predecessors?
No. This time it was four of us collaborating – Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jermaine and myself. But it was the same process: Everyone getting all of their thoughts and ideas out on the table, then talking about which ideas to keep or throw out. [Singer/songwriter] Johntá Austin also played a part in the album.
It was really a collaborative effort, and that’s what made it so nice. Jermaine would run into the studio and talk about the songs Jimmy and Terry had done on someone’s album. Then Jimmy would start playing the song, and Jermaine would say, “You know what? Let’s do something kind of along those lines as a base.” He understood them, he understood me and vice versa.
How would you describe the musical mind-set of “20 Y.O.”
This album takes me to a place where I haven’t been in a while: R&B and dance. I give that credit to Jermaine. I like to say he brought the country to the album, while he says he brought the ghetto [laughs].
But the dance element was the one thing I was adamant about having. The album also features samples from music that inspired me 20, 25 years ago. There are also some midtempo songs and some of what everyone calls my “baby-making songs”.
The “Call On Me” video carries a retro vibe. What inspired its concept?
Hype Williams was the director during the 10-day shoot. All the visuals you see in the video are how Hype hears the music; it’s very colorful. The idea was to do something different from what you see on TV; to go back to the way we used to do videos.
A lot of videos seem the same to me. And that’s fine. But young kids don’t get the opportunity to see the way it was done before and where imagination can go. That takes money, and labels aren’t doing that now.
So how was it like working in the studio for the first time with Jermaine?
It was just absolutely wonderful, very easy, not one hiccup. When we’re at home in Atlanta, I’ll sometimes go in the studio with him. But I’ll never, obviously, walk in and disturb him while he’s at work creating. So this was my first time actually seeing him at work, and I loved it.
Sometimes I’d just peek in there. His back would be to me, and he never knew that I was in the room. I’d just sit and watch him.
From then to now, how have you evolved artistically in the last 20 years?
I think you hear it lyrically. And I think you can hear the maturity as time has progressed. Still from time to time you’ll hear that kid come out, too. That’s still there, somehow. I’m also just more relaxed, more confident.
My family would tell me to just relax and enjoy what’s going on. I’d say, “OK”, but wouldn’t do it. But time goes so quickly. I’m doing that now, because there are things that allow me to do that.
And as an artist, are you still having fun?
Yes. I can’t sit here and take credit for everything. I’ve been fortunate to have a strong team behind me. Some people may do this because they think it’s a great way to make money. But I really love what I do.