With showstopping headlining performances at festivals all summer, including Panorama Music Festival and Essence Music Festival, it felt only natural that Janet Jackson would soon return with new music. Less than a week after closing out San Francisco’s Outside Lands on Aug. 13, the iconic entertainer made a triumphant return with the Latin crossover single “Made for Now” with Daddy Yankee, marking the first time since 2015’s “No Sleeep” that she’s dropped a music video in conjunction with a track release.
According to producer Harmony Samuels, the London-born musician who has helmed singles for Ariana Grande, Fifth Harmony and Jennifer Lopez, the process began nearly a year ago, prior to her heading out on her State of the World tour in September 2017. What began as a writing camp among collaborators became the breezy “Made for Now,” a pop-leaning bop with a light tropical hue that removes her from the midnight storm R&B of 2015’s Unbreakable and brings her back to the dance floor.
Now, with the single and video arriving on the heels of her festival run, the 52-year-old is prepping an upcoming EP that includes “Made for Now” and what Samuels describes as songs that call back to her Velvet Rope and Control eras. In the wake of “Made for Now,” he breaks down how he got the gig with Jackson and why he thinks it could put her back in the pop crosshairs.
How did this all come together?
I have good friends in high places. Janet’s A&R, his name is JQ, he’s from London. We’re both from London. So we met each other about 10 years ago. On my way to Clive Davis’ yearly Grammy party, he saw me in the plane like, “We need to talk about Janet.” I was like, please. I said, OK cool! Let’s talk about Janet. Three months later, never heard from him. Then he called me out of the blue. He said, Janet wants to start recording. This was just before she went on tour. We go to meet with Janet for the first time and I’m shaking in my boots. because oh my goodness, it’s Janet Jackson. This isn’t just any artist. This is an icon, a legend! So many different things. She walks in the room so beautifully, gracefully, just like, “Hi!” She asked, “Whose birthday is May 16?” and I said mine. She said, “Oh, we share the same birthday!” I was like, yes! I’m in. Then she was so amazing, talking to us about what she really wanted to talk about on this record. She said she wanted it to be about love and the world coming together. She wanted it to be about unity. She felt like, where in the world was that? She was a place where she felt like she could help bring it together culturally, spiritually, mentally, by love. I was like, wow, no pressure!
I go to the studio and I created this writing camp, me and JQ, we’re in the studio writing song after song for 10 days. I kept saying to myself, I need Janet to have something different and new that sparks everyone to be like, we never heard her this way before, but she still sounds amazing. I was scratching my head and pacing around the studio, like, what is it? One morning, it just hit me. I quickly did research on her and she’s never done an Afrocentric cultural record before. I said, perfect. That’s exactly what I’m going to do: cultural, Afrocentric, with a little bit of Latino [inspiration] and we’re gonna write a great record to it. I’m in the shower and the first guitar line you hear in the song, I literally hear it in my head. I jump out the shower and scream, yes yes! I sing into my phone, I get in my clothes and run to the studio, speeding down the freeway like, this is going to be the record. I’m making the track and going crazy. We end up making the song, the team of us: Al Sherrod [Lambert], Shawn Butler, Verren Wade, Edgar “JV” Etienne and myself. We’re all just working together like, this is actually going to be perfect for Janet.
She comes in and hears it and loves the record, her and her brother Randy love the record. She makes the changes and does all the things that make it her, fit her. She’s very unique and has her own vibe and sound. We go to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to cut the record. They were another set of icons. Legendary people. All of them in one room? That’s all too much. Then we cut the record, she loved it and she’d been preparing to put it out for a while. It’s been an experience. I’m excited about her EP too that’s coming out, because we’ve got other records that are just as good.
What made you want to go in that direction musically?
Firstly, culturally, I’m African. So where I’m from, I’m culturally from that naturally. Even though I was born and raised in London and lived there my whole life, I’ve always had a very strong cultural background. I had already been making those types of records for other up-and-coming artists and Afrocentric artists in Nigeria like Tiwa Savage. I had done a huge record for Destiny’s Child a few years back called “Say Yes,” a very good record. It was also culturally influenced. I’d already been invested in that way. I just was like, this is very different for Janet but it doesn’t sound super different in that you wouldn’t love it on her, if you know what I mean. She’s got those cultural vibes about her, if you check the way she dances. She’s not a woman of just one genre of music — she’s all genres of music. I felt like if given to her correctly, she would be able to deliver it and she did. She did more than deliver it. She did an amazing job, from the video all the way down. She’s just incredible.
In terms of coming off of the last record, 2015’s Unbreakable, which was very downbeat R&B, do you consider this a pivot for her?
Yeah. The first thing that came out of her mouth was “energy. I want people to get up and dance.” She said she wanted people to come together. Not everybody listens to R&B the same way. This is more of a universal record where it can go to multiple places at the same time, different countries at the same time. Putting Daddy Yankee on it puts a whole other culture involved as well. I feel she did make a pivot to switch things up and show a different side to her and show also that she’s in a different place in her life too.
Speaking to that last point, how do you think she’s in a different place in her life right now and how is that reflected in the music?
I think you hear maturity but you still hear youth. She’s always been about love, but you hear a more mature love because of her child. Her child, I feel, makes her appreciate even more than maybe before. You can just tell she’s really in a place of giving to people and wanting to share and unify people. I think her song plays a big part in that. Even when she expressed that, when you watch her tour, she’s just expressing that we can do this together. Let’s come against the things that are causing us destruction and destroying our country and world, and let’s work together. I think the song plays a huge part. And her age. She says that. She says, “I ain’t 25 no more, but I still got it.” [Laughs] She’s still got it. And she’s an amazing person. You learn so much from her. Her work ethic is second to none. Just amazing. Very honored to be even in her presence, as well as working with her.
Putting Daddy Yankee on the record felt like a natural fit. What was the discussion in having him be a part of it?
I think they toyed around with different ideas of who they were going to put on. There were so many different ideas, and he was a perfect unifying factor. I think he just, being Latino and having such a huge fan base over there and being so dope as well, he’s a legend himself. He’s been doing this for a minute, he didn’t start yesterday. You can’t just put anybody next to Janet. I saw the team felt culturally, genre-wise and just his status was perfect for her. The connection between them was great too, the energy between them was awesome. And he murdered that verse. I was like, he sounds like he’s 25 years old again! He really put his foot in and he’s really in support of this record. I think it’s just beautiful to bring different cultures together in this time right now, me being from London, Janet being from here, him being Latino. Everybody just being so culturally diverse and working together to create this moment, it’s just incredible.
One of the things that’s so distinctive about this record, especially for Janet, is that America has been having this Latin music renaissance over the past few years. It feels like the perfect moment for her to venture into the Latin world. How do you see her fitting into that sound and adopting the vibe of that?
I don’t think she’s venturing into it like, “I’m trying to something there.” I think she’s just having fun and wherever the music takes her, she’s open to go. I think that the Latino world will love her. Daddy Yankee is a big fan of hers, and I think they will just generally accept her because she’s so great. Period. Just her venturing off into those sounds makes it even more attractive. I think that they would love it. It’s good for her and I hope she does Latin festivals and the Latin Grammy Awards. What I do know is that the world is very excited about her, and very happy and open to receive the music she’s putting out right now. She makes the perfect choice by unifying the world by culturally going somewhere different.
You have a few other songs on her upcoming EP. What can you tell me about what you did together? Is it in the same vein as “Made For Now?”
Like I said, she’s not bound to any genre of music. She does have some classic R&B, but some other stuff that’s grungy where you’ll be like, woo! What vibe is that? Kind of George Michael-esque. I can’t say more than that. [Laughs] But it’s very impressive and people that have listened before me, it feels like she’s gone back to Velvet Rope and Control but it’s new, it’s a different vibe and you can hear that. For me, that’s more than I can ask, that people feel that same connection from where she was 30 years ago. That’s amazing. This EP is going to be exciting. It’s young and fresh but it’s not young trying to be young. It’s open for everyone to receive.
Janet is an icon and has had so many hits. It’s been a minute since she’s had a song take over the pop world. Do you think this might be the song to do it?
I hope so. I would never sit here and say this song is going to take over the world, because evidently, it’s up to the people. The people choose. I will always respect that. But I hope so. I really do believe she’s in a space and time and still doing so much that it’s got a great chance, and I’m supporting her the whole way.