Janet Jackson remains the same, in many ways, as when we first met 29 years ago, while she was shooting the “Rhythm Nation” video at a power plant in Pasadena, Calif. She was 23. For hours, I watched her perfect the paramilitary moves of a thrilling dance exhorting the world to break the color line. She was fierce. At the end of the day, I was invited into her trailer, where she had changed from a take-charge black uniform to oversize jeans and loose white T-shirt. Here, she was hardly fierce at all. Instead, she was reticent, even timid. She was so soft-spoken that I had to lean in to make out her words. She was uncomfortable speaking to a stranger and, with elaborate politeness, made it clear that the shorter the interview, the better.
This was three years after the massive success of 1986’s Control -- her first Billboard 200 No. 1, now certified five-times platinum by the RIAA -- and I expected at least a little self-satisfaction or swagger. There was none. Her success almost seemed like a source of embarrassment. Speaking about her private life and professional accomplishments was obviously painful. So instead, we talked about music -- by other people. Joni Mitchell, Sade, Nina Simone. She glowed at the mention of Marvin Gaye, whom she called “our John Lennon.”
As Jackson slowly revealed the seriousness of her artistic vision for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and its precedent in work like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, her ambition became obvious. In her whisper-quiet way, she articulated the grandeur of her artistic dreams. Her confidence, deep and steely strong, was wrapped in a remarkable sweetness.
Nearly three decades later, having just turned 52, her passions are unchanged: pursuing grand artistic endeavors while protecting her privacy. Her self-effacing demeanor -- still sweet, still barely audible -- defies even a hint of braggadocio, in spite of the achievements that have earned her the Icon Award at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards (BBMAs): No. 1 albums in four consecutive decades; roughly 32 million albums sold in the United States, according to a Billboard estimate (based on RIAA certifications, Nielsen Music data and archival reports); 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including 10 No. 1s; and on and on. Yet for all the consistencies of character, the Janet I’ve encountered recently is undoubtedly changed, in large part because she’s now a mom.
Our recent discussions begin in December 2017 in her spacious Midtown Manhattan apartment. Before we start talking, she tenderly bathes, powders and eases her 1-year-old son, Eissa, into a peaceful slumber. (Jackson married Eissa’s father, the Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana, in 2012, and the two separated in early 2017.) Wildly in love with the child asleep in the next room, she’s now freer with her feelings. She laughs more frequently and with greater abandon. And although the artistic ambition I sensed when we met decades earlier is intact, there’s now an eagerness to reflect on that ambition.
I meet Jackson again in May, in the living room of her hotel suite in Malibu, Calif. It’s an overcast morning, the sea and sky a blur of gloomy gray, but Jackson, dressed in simple black sweats, is upbeat. Her hair is gathered in a tight bun above her head. No makeup, no jewelry. “Once a tomboy,” she says, “always a tomboy.” She’s svelte, the result of readying herself for the latest leg of her State of the World Tour, a summer run that includes sets at the Essence, Panorama and Outside Lands festivals, as well as her performance at the BBMAs.
Despite the hectic sprint to rehearse for the shows while recording new songs for an as-yet-unannounced release, Jackson appears to have resolved that pernicious parenting-versus-career conundrum, doing both with grace. She and I pick up where we left off in New York, digging into her music and the history swirling around it. Using characteristically precise, thoughtful language, she puts her legacy in a context of collaboration and the steady conquering of her own struggles with self-confidence.
Eleven studio albums: six in the 20th century, five in the 21st and all beginning at age 16. Let’s go back to the very beginning, when your first two records -- 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street -- were released.
Excitement was in the air. Music was always my heart, and now I was getting to sing my heart out. The songs were good, but they weren’t me. [She only began co-writing most of her songs on Control.] That was a little confusing. I knew I had something to say, I knew I had to assert myself. I also knew I had to go through the painful process of what my brothers had gone through. I had to thank my father for his help and then move on. I had to assert myself.
And take control.
Control was undoubtedly the break-through. But I think the concept is sometimes misunderstood. I’m a believer. I know that God has absolute control. I’ve never wavered in that belief. I don’t mean I don’t get controlling -- most artists do. But I also know that turning myself into a control freak goes against my character. I’m much more a collaborator than a controller. So I saw control, even as a 20-year-old, in modest and limited ways. For example, I agreed to be produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That was critical because they were not controlling. They let me be me. They encouraged me to tell my story, express my attitudes and step forward with my convictions. They encouraged me to write. I also had the control to select choreographers and video directors who could channel -- and help me shape -- my own dance moves, turning them into visual poetry. I didn’t control those wonderfully creative people, and they didn’t control me. It was more about molding fruitful partnerships. And based on those partnerships and the success of Control, I could move on and assert myself even more boldly.
Can we pause a second to listen to the title track to Rhythm Nation together?
Sure. [Closes her eyes.] I remember after doing the rough demo, I had a vision for the video. I was determined to create a longform version because I believed the song merited it. I asked Gil Friesen, my A&R man at A&M, if I could drive him through the hills of Malibu in my Jeep and play him the song. The top was down, the wind blowing, the sun blazing and the music blasting.
“It’s great,” said Gil, “but you’re really talking about an expensive shoot. It’ll cost a fortune. I’m not sure we have the budget.” I cranked up the volume and played it again. When Gil asked to hear it a third time, I knew he’d agree [to the shoot].
May Gil [who died in 2012] rest in peace. He was a music-loving man who also saw I needed to sing about issues that were important to me -- like racism. He understood my need to protest. I was truly fortunate that my early mentors -- especially label owners Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss -- were completely artist-oriented. They not only allowed me to go my own way, they urged me to do so.
The general notion is that as Marvin Gaye went from What’s Going On to Let’s Get It On, you went from Rhythm Nation to 1993’s janet.
janet. had a deeply sensual edge because that’s what I was going through in my life. I was discovering freedom in physical pleasure and loved writing about sexuality. I tried to do it subtly and tastefully, but I also wanted to push the boundaries a bit.
I have an unreleased track from that period that underlines your point. I want to play you your version of Sylvia Robinson’s “Pillow Talk” that never made the record.
[Smiles as the song plays.] Not sure what I was thinking when I excluded it. Now that I’m hearing it for the first time in years, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe it should have gone on the record. Maybe I just wasn’t willing to do a cover because of my eagerness to hone my craft as a writer.
I have other powerful memories about janet. -- how honored and moved I was to have the great opera diva Kathleen Battle sing with me on “This Time.” That was something of an innovation. In contrast, it was great to include Chuck D’s rap on “New Agenda.” I didn’t want this album to ignore serious issues. I was heavy into the work of Maya Angelou when, late one night and unable to sleep, I wrote that song’s lines: “Because of my gender, I’ve heard no too many times/Because of my race, I’ve heard no too many times/But with every no I grow in strength/That’s why as an African-American woman, I stand tall with pride.” Those lines live in my mind. They’re something of a mantra.
Talking about pride -- early on, you were embraced by the gay pride movement.
It’s a loving, all-embracing community that has always inspired me. I don’t often listen to my own work, but when I go back to [1997’s] Velvet Rope, I put on “Together Again” and remember the friends I lost to AIDS. It was important to me to honor them not mournfully but joyously in a celebratory song. Their spirit did so much to bolster mine. Sometimes when people talk about Velvet Rope, they call it my edgiest or sexiest record. Yet the heart of the record is not about sex at all. It’s about how, in defiance of death, we will all be “together again.” It’s an anthem to undying love.
The other highlight of Velvet Rope was working with Q-Tip, another master. I had long loved A Tribe Called Quest. Then, on “Got Til It’s Gone,” when we were able to combine Tip with the sublime Joni Mitchell, I was in heaven.
Tell me about singing with Luther Vandross. Your duet, “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” was included in your retrospective album Design of a Decade: 1986-1996.
Total treat. Luther’s place in the pantheon of soul crooners is secure. You have to go back to Sam Cooke to find a singer with Luther’s sensitivity and finesse. I adore his voice. Such flexibility. Perfect pitch. Perfect enunciation. A singer’s singer. I was also glad to do a dance song, and Luther was gracious enough to adapt to my rhythmic style. Because of his genius, it came off perfectly. Trends will come and go, but Luther’s artistry will endure forever.
The 21st century starts off with two albums -- 2001’s All for You and 2004’s Damita Jo -- where it feels like you’ve made a conscious decision to lighten up.
I did. I felt like I was taking myself a little too seriously. Art is serious stuff, but when an artist -- or least an artist like me -- loses her sense of humor or her feeling for pure fun, something goes missing. Every once in a great while, I have to go back and bring out that little girl inside of me who can simply blow off steam and try to spread joy. As someone who has battled depression, that’s not only important, it’s vital. Sometimes purely happy music is the best medicine I can ingest.
Missy Elliott, an incredible artist who has been there for me as a loyal friend and strong sista, did a fabulous remix on “Son of a Gun” from All for You, leading to our video together. That was big fun. We got together again on “The I” from [2008’s] Discipline, when I was working with Rodney Jerkins and Jermaine Dupri. I also loved collaborating with Kanye West on “My Baby” from Damita Jo. This was 2004, College Dropout time, when the world was just recognizing his talent.
Jumping ahead a few years, I recall witnessing an especially difficult moment in your life: You were recording at Rodney Jerkins’ studio in L.A. -- a year after your brother had passed [in 2009] -- and you happened to glance at a magazine with a picture of Michael and said, “I still can’t believe it.”
That brings up a precious memory. It happened in the early ’80s. I was 16 and in between my first two records. Michael was recording [1982’s] Thriller. He invited me to the studio where he was about to sing “P.Y.T.” and asked me to help out on background vocals. Since we had been singing together forever, I knew it’d be easy. I jumped at the chance. I loved being one of the P.Y.T.’s and was especially proud -- I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging -- that when the record was mixed, my single background voice was the one featured. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel.
On your most recent album, 2015’s Unbreakable, “No Sleeep” was the single. It has a romantic tinge, but I’m wondering whether the idea came about because, as a new mom, a waking infant kept you up all night.
[Laughs.] I wrote that story over Jimmy and Terry’s track before the baby was born! So obviously, it wasn’t anything I was going through. You could say, though, that I might have been anticipating sleepless nights. I’d also add that sleepless nights, no matter how tiring, are some of the times that I do my best writing.
Talk about the music you’re writing now.
I wish I could. I’m not trying to avoid the question and be secretive, but the truth is that I don’t try to analyze the creative process while it’s still ongoing. I’m very intuitive about writing. Anything can inspire me. This morning, I saw this lovely elderly Japanese woman walking down the streets of Hollywood wearing an adorable bonnet with bright red flowers. She might be a song. I remembered an especially painful chapter in my early life last night before going to bed. That might be a song. I woke up this morning and heard a bird chirping in a rhythm that captivated my heart. Maybe that will turn into a new groove. Like everyone else, my feelings are fluid. My ideas are fleeting. I like to keep it that way. I can’t decide in advance what a song or an album concept will be. I have to let those songs and concepts come to me rather than chase them down.
I’m glad I’m not methodical or self-conscious as a writer. It’s important that I maintain a let-it-happen-when-it-happens approach. I don’t want to strain or stress. I want to be a channel for whatever images and emotions are running through my imagination. Spontaneity is so important to me. It allows for surprise, and, for me, surprise is what breaks up the boredom of daily life. When I finally get to the music that genuinely expresses what I’m experiencing in the moment, I feel free. Music does that for me. Its healing properties are extraordinary.
So much of your music over these past four decades has been about putting out positive messages, whether personal or societal. Given today’s state of the nation, are you discouraged?
No. I’m anxious. I’m angry. I’m certainly concerned, but when I hear new artists finding their voices, just as I found mine, I’m optimistic. Young artists are exhibiting more courage than ever. Music is more alive than ever. And more relevant. We women artists -- and women in general -- are saying we will not be controlled, manipulated or abused. We’re determined not to fall back to those days of emotional and even physical enslavement. It’s a blessing to be alive today and join in the fight for equality among all human beings.
You mentioned younger artists. Which ones impress you the most?
Daniel Caesar is proving that romantic R&B is alive and well. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are proving that brilliantly original storytelling is one of hip-hop’s great gifts to world culture. SZA is proving that young women still possess extraordinary vocal skills and style.
I also have a special place in my heart for Bruno Mars. Bruno was really the first music my son responded to. During and after his birth, I comforted myself with Brazilian jazz, music that always relaxes me. Then when the baby began crawling, Bruno was breaking out big and on the radio all the time. That delighted both of us. Bruno is a throwback to the days when the greatest artists could do it all: write, sing, dance, produce.
So here you are, a single mom of 52, about to run into the studio, make new music, learn new dance moves and then embark on a grueling tour. What is the source of your drive?
The drive is in my DNA. I couldn’t lose it if I wanted to, and I don’t. Motivation is something I treasure. Besides, for all its difficulties, this is the life I love. I’m surrounded with a team of dancers, singers and musicians I love. I’m supported by fans that have stuck by me through thick and thin. They mean the world to me. Now more than ever, performing, whether in the studio or onstage, brings me a satisfaction I find nowhere else.
Like millions of other women, I’ve struggled with low self-esteem my whole life. I’m doing better in that regard. My inclination toward harsh self-criticism and even self-negation has dramatically eased up. I believe in all the different methods of help -- smart psychology, vigorous exercise and sincere spirituality.
God is the greatest healer of all and the most potent force in the universe. In my world, though, God is so often expressed through music, and it’s music that beats back the negative forces. It’s music that drowns out those voices that say I’m not enough. It’s music, and its divine source, that gifts me with the knowledge that harmony is still possible.
And while we’re talking about positivity, let me also say that my son, even in his short 17 months on the planet, has showed me that love, no matter how deeply you believe you have experienced that emotion, can always go deeper. Love is limitless. And for someone like me, raised in show business where self-concern is always a priority, how fortunate I am now to be concerned, first and foremost, with the welfare of someone else. Day after day and night after night, holding my baby in my arms, I am at peace. I am blessed. I feel bliss. In those moments, all is right with the world.
THE HITS: AN ABRIDGED HISTORY
With over 100 total No. 1s -- making for more than 300 weeks spent leading various Billboard charts -- Jackson has almost too many smashes to tally. So we narrowed it down to her 10 songs and seven albums that have topped the Hot 100 and Billboard 200, respectively.
July 5: Control Two weeks at No. 1, five-times platinum
Oct. 11: “When I Think of You” Two weeks
Oct. 7: “Miss You Much” Four weeks, platinum
Oct. 28: Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 Four weeks, six-times platinum
March 3: “Escapade” Three weeks
Oct. 27: “Black Cat” One week, gold
Jan. 19: “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” One week, gold
May 15: “That’s the Way Love Goes” Eight weeks, platinum
June 5: janet. Six weeks, six-times platinum
Dec. 11: “Again” Two weeks, platinum
Oct. 25: The Velvet Rope One week, three-times platinum
Jan. 31: “Together Again” Two weeks, gold
Aug. 26: “Doesn’t Really Matter” Three weeks, gold
April 14: “All for You” Seven weeks
May 12: All for You One week, two-times platinum
March 15: Discipline One week
Oct. 24: Unbreakable One week
This article originally appeared in the May 19 issue of Billboard.