Janet Jackson: The stories behind the songs

By Mark Savage
Entertainment reporter


Janet Jackson's chief collaborator, Jimmy Jam, reveals the secrets behind their biggest hits and talks about her new album, Unbreakable.

image copyrightRhythm Nation / BMG

After seven years away from the studio, Janet Jackson releases a new album, Unbreakable, on Friday.

It comes after a tumultuous decade in which her brother, Michael, died; and her music was banned by some US radio stations after a Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction".

Unbreakable feels like a response to those events, as well as some happier ones, in particular Jackson's 2012 marriage to Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana.

Over 17 tracks, the singer talks about grief and depression, but also about love, loyalty and compassion. Most importantly, she stresses, friends will pull you through the hard times.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJames "Jimmy Jam" Harris III and Terry Lewis at the Soul Train Awards in 2011

The record reunites Jackson with producers Jam and Lewis, who rescued her from bargain bin ignominy in 1986, and masterminded all of her most successful albums, from Control to janet and beyond.

Speaking to the BBC from New Orleans, Jimmy Jam revealed the stories behind the star's signature songs, and picked his highlights from the new album.


image copyrightUniversal / A&M Records

Janet's first single with Jam & Lewis, What Have You Done For Me Lately presents the singer as a fierce, independent woman, ruthlessly dismissing her feckless boyfriend. "You ought to be thankful for the little things," she scolds, "but little things are all you seem to give."

Originally, What Have You Done For Me Lately was going to be a track on an album Terry and I were working on - our own album. The rest of the Control album was totally done but [record label executive] John McClain said: "Hey guys, I just need one more song."

The lyric came up because of a relationship Janet had gotten out of [her marriage to soul singer James DeBarge, which was annulled a year earlier]. The concept was basically, "he used to do nice things for you, but what has he done for you lately?"

All of the songs we did with Janet on the Control record had a lot of attitude. She always had a lot of attitude in the parts she played on TV and we thought that was missing in her previous albums.

So, with Nasty, with Control, with a lot of the songs on the album, we tried to bring that out: Really aggressive tracks, really hard-hitting tracks, because we knew she could pull them off.

STATE OF THE WORLD (from Rhythm Nation 1814, 1989)

image copyrightRex Features

The Rhythm Nation album opens with a triptych of songs calling for action against poverty, racism and illiteracy. Among them is State of the World, which captures Janet's growing horror as she witnesses homelessness, drug dependency and prostitution right on her doorstep.

We were trying to do something like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On - although we never could hope to achieve that - but we wanted to make people aware of what was going on, in a way where you could dance to it.

On that record there were a lot of metallic sounds, a lot of trash cans and glass breaking - the sort of things that were the sonic landscape of the streets.

Did we worry about front-loading the album with a big social message? No, we weren't concerned.

Maybe if the record company actually heard what we were doing, they wouldn't have liked it. But the nice thing about Control and Rhythm Nation was they were done in a vacuum. We were in Minneapolis, away from the record company scenes of LA and New York. There wasn't really any outside influence.

But I have always thought, what if you gave that same batch of songs to the record company and said, "OK, here's our album?" Would that album be called Escapade? And would the album have a nice colour photo of Janet smiling on the cover?

THAT'S THE WAY LOVE GOES (from janet, 1993)

image copyrightVirgin EMI

Beckoning towards the bedroom, Janet turned down the lights and turned up the heat on this slinky, seductive song, based around a sample from James Brown's Papa Don't Take No Mess. An unexpected change of style - lyrically and musically - it was the public's introduction to a more adult Janet.

I'm a huge James Brown fan and I always thought it'd be cool to take something funky he did but actually make a song out of it. So that was the intention.

Everybody seemed to really like it but when I played it for Janet, she kind of said, "eh, it's OK." And so we moved on - because we were working on a ton of other things, too.

When we took a break around the Christmas holidays she said, "put a cassette together for me" and I put that track on there because, in my mind, it was still a viable track. She went to Anguilla and when she came back, the first thing she said was "we've gotta work on that track" and she immediately came up with the title.

Janet had recently signed a record-breaking $40m contract with Virgin Records, who wanted a different song - If - to be the campaign's first single. The star was inclined to agree, until a rap megastar intervened.

If was basically like the tail-end of Rhythm Nation. It was very loud, metallic.

They were all in love with it. In their minds, that was the first single but we [Jam & Lewis] were going: "No! That's what everyone expects!"

We had Chuck D and [hip-hop producer] Hank Shocklee in the studio and we said: "Can we get your opinion?" It was about three in the morning, but we played That's The Way Love Goes, and then we played If and said: "So, which one?"

Chuck was like, "If, man, that's a Janet record. But that other one... That's like when Sade releases a record, and there's no hype about it, it's just all-of-a-sudden in front of you."

And so Janet looked at him, and she said: "OK, it's That's The Way Love Goes." Obviously it worked out really well but there are still people who think it would have been better to go with If first.

GOT TIL IT'S GONE (from The Velvet Rope, 1997)

image copyrightRex Features

A departure from Janet's commercial sound, this gritty, pared-down groove surprised many fans - not least because it sampled Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi.

First of all, we had to call Joni Mitchell and get her permission. But she was a fan and said, "I can't wait to hear what you guys do," which was really cool.

It's a very sparse track. I'm a huge fan of [late hip-hop producer] J Dilla and that record was my attempt to do a J Dilla track. I thought it sounded like bohemian hip-hop.

It was interesting in this country because pop radio didn't touch it. Probably the video didn't help. Mark Romanek did such a beautiful job but it was so ethnic... It just wasn't what people were feeling.

SHOULDA KNOWN BETTER (from Unbreakable, 2015)

image copyrightRhythm Nation / BMG

25 years after State of the World, Janet realises how little has changed. "Why, why, why?" she cries over a pounding house beat, before making a renewed call for social action. "We won't make excuses. We won't take no abuses."

When you're young, you feel like: "I can change the world! I'm going to lead the revolution!" And then you look 25 years later and you go: "OK, I should have known better. The same problems still exist but there's a different way to go about tackling it. It still involves mobilising people, but I can't do it by myself."

It's just a wiser, more mature look at the reality of trying to make a positive change, a social change.

LESSONS LEARNED (from Unbreakable, 2015)

image copyrightRhythm Nation / BMG

Over a plucked guitar figure, Janet sings about an abusive relationship where the victim keeps circling back for more. "What makes her want to stay?" sighs the star.

I actually did this track in an airport on my laptop. I don't know what I was feeling, but I played it for Janet and she just went away and came back with the lyrics.

That's probably Terry's favourite song right now and has been for a while. He really fell in love with the lyrical concept. It's about abusive relationships - but not pointing blame. Just the kind of revolving door they become. You allow it to happen, and it takes two people for that to happen. It's a very resigned song.

GON' B ALRIGHT (from Unbreakable, 2015)

image copyrightEverett Collection / Rex Shutterstock
image captionJanet (centre) pays tribute to her late brother Michael on her new album

Riffing on Sly & The Family Stone's Dance To The Music, Gon' B Alright closes Janet's new album with a cartoonish, effervescent bounce. "We all need a little love when we get down in the dumps," Janet giggles as the brass section bustles.

At the beginning of talking about the new album, one of the things we wanted was to have something with a Sly and the Family Stone energy [and] a Jackson Five feel to it.

She's always stayed away from anything like her brothers' [music] but we really felt like that this was appropriate. Particularly on a song like Broken Hearts Heal - which is a song directly about her brother, and them growing up together.

Gon' B Alright squeaked onto the album at the last minute. We really had a tough time recording it - maybe two or three attempts.

Interestingly enough, Janet actually does all the vocals - all the high voices and the low ones - with a little tape trickery and Janet singing in different voices and different characters.

We thought it was a great way to end the album - on a note of optimism. I think the record is everything she wanted it to be. So I hope people are accepting of it and enjoy it.

Unbreakable is out now on Rhythm Nation / BMG.

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