Don’t call it a comeback.
Janet Jackson conceived her new Virgin Records release, “20 Y.O.” (due Sept. 26), as a celebration of the joyful liberation and history-making musical style of her 1986 breakthrough album, “Control.”
That album has sold more than 5 million copies in the United States alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Jackson’s musical declaration of independence launched a string of hits, an indelible production sound and an enduring image cemented by groundbreaking video choreography and imagery that pop vocalists still emulate.
Jackson reunited with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and was joined by Jermaine Dupri to craft a musical reflection of who she is today and how the artistic promise of “Control” has been fulfilled some two decades later.
Creating a project with such lofty goals was a relatively smooth process, Harris and Dupri say. Conversations that began before Christmas 2005 between Jackson and the producers narrowed down the theme early, and songwriting and recording began in earnest in February.
The discussion turned to how Jackson was feeling at the time “Control” was recorded (when, incidentally, Dupri was just 13).
“I started asking questions like, ‘What was the feeling of life when you were 20?’ I was so intrigued with what was going on in her life then that I just thought her album should be called that,” Dupri says.
Harris adds, “It made sense as a concept because, obviously, the 20 years since the ‘Control’ album, but it also means — for her — a sense of rejuvenation. A sense of that excitement that you have when you are 20 years old, when your life is beginning and you’re striking out on your own. She has that same sense of hunger and excitement.”
For Jackson, recruiting Jam & Lewis was a no-brainer. Working creatively with her boyfriend Dupri, who is not only a distinct hitmaker in his own right but also president of Virgin’s urban music division, was more of a risk. Although they have been together for five years, during which time Dupri crafted Mariah Carey’s comeback project “The Emancipation of Mimi,” the couple had never collaborated professionally.
“I didn’t know how we would jell, if we were gonna get in an argument,” notes Dupri, who admits that he can be a bit ruthless in the studio. “I didn’t even want to walk down that path with her, because we’re such good friends. I never wanted this business part to get between us.”
Rather than contribute separate tracks for “20 Y.O.,” Dupri and the Jam & Lewis team decided to collaborate. The process could have caused ego and procedural conflicts. But Jam & Lewis give high marks to Dupri, who Jam says knows more about the Jam & Lewis style than the Minneapolis-bred moguls themselves.
“The great thing about working with Jermaine, he came in with total respect for us, we had total respect for him,” Jam says. “The fact is that we were fans of each other and for Janet.”
The entire team of Jackson, Jam, Lewis and Dupri created the tracks, with occasional contributions from songwriter Johnta Austin. The project was recorded chiefly at Jam & Lewis’ Flyte Tyme Studios in Los Angeles and Dupri’s Southside Studio complex in Atlanta, with some sections undertaken at Village Recorder in L.A. and the Hit Factory in Miami.
All the parties note that Jackson is an extremely focused and hard worker in the studio. Just as she dropped a reported 70 pounds to be camera-ready for the promotion required, Jackson is committed to doing whatever it takes to get the job done.
“She’s one of those you literally have to kick out the studio. She’ll never tell you her voice is getting tired, she’ll just work and work,” says Jam, who recalls that Jackson called him to add a small vocal part to the tune “Daybreak” once the song was finished and ended up spending some seven hours in the studio tweaking other tunes.
“She’s not a perfectionist, she enjoys what I call ‘happy accidents’ … Many times she’ll sing the wrong lyric and go, ‘Oops,’ and we’ll say, ‘Oh, leave it like that.’ She’s totally open about being spontaneous and the creativity of it.”
The first single, “Call on Me,” pairs Jackson with St. Louis rapper Nelly, with a videoclip directed by Hype Williams. Dupri notes that other than her 1998 outing singing hooks on Busta Rhymes’ “What’s It Gonna Be,” Jackson had not worked with any contemporary hip-hop artists.
“If Janet had just come out, people wouldn’t be asking that question. Of course she don’t need Nelly, but in today’s market, half the kids watching ‘106th & Park’ don’t even know what ‘Control’ sounds like.”
While “20 Y.O.” celebrates “Control,” the album does not reference songs from that project. Instead, there are subtle cues that hark back to the 1986 smash. “There are little pieces of ear candy in almost all of the songs that references something over the past 20 years, but you really have to be a fan or someone who had listened to a lot of her music to recognize it,” Jam says.
Jam & Lewis also left behind one of their signatures: building new songs from the rhythm beds of classics, as they did using Sly Stone’s “Thankyoufalettinmebemicelfagin” for “Rhythm Nation” and Change’s “Glow of Love” for “All for You.”
Lyrically Jackson examines her life today, with upbeat grooves, sexy ballads and a positive outlook. “It’s a lyrically confident album,” Jam notes. “She talks about a whole lot of different subjects, but it’s not anything heavy. It’s not ‘Rhythm Nation,’ it’s not ‘Velvet Rope,’ there’s no pain, no bitterness, no suffering. It’s more confident woman lyrics.”
Other tracks from the set include “Show Me,” which Jam calls a “happy record”; “With You,” which Dupri calls a bona fide smash; “So Excited”; a sexy fantasy called “My Body”; and “Get It Out Me.”
Key to the project is reconnecting Jackson with her urban base without losing the strong core of pop and dance fans she has built during the last two decades. “Times have changed from when Michael and Janet were out in the ’80s,” Dupri notes, pointing to the fact that urban artists no longer have to cross over to pop before achieving maximum exposure and sales. “Janet shouldn’t be changing or trying to change to get on pop radio.”
Dupri is concerned that part of her fan base, including the loyal gay following so important to Jackson, expects glossy dance hits on par with “All for You” or “Together Again” that Dupri wants to move beyond.
“They want her to do what she’s done for so long,” he says. “But urban uptempo records don’t really work on urban radio. Urban uptempo records have a tendency to keep going to pop radio and [becoming] a pop record as opposed to keeping your urban base.”
The troops at Virgin Records are gearing up to create an international event out of the release and plan to take advantage of every promotional and cross-marketing opportunity. The promotional plan brings Jackson down from the thin air of superstardom back to earth, where her fans can relate to her.
The singer has already appeared at press conferences in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta and on the covers of Us Weekly and Vibe; is personally visiting radio stations; and will appear at listening parties and meet-and-greets here and abroad.
Jackson will also visit Oprah Winfrey for a show to be broadcast the week of the CD’s release. The up-close-and-personal approach distinguishes Jackson in a field crowded with young female singers and a multitude of technologically sophisticated methods of connecting artists and listeners.
“For so long she’s been doing the same cookie-cutter thing,” Dupri says. “I’m out working her the same way I would take any of my new artists out and work. People just expect [Jackson] to put a record out, do what she do and sell. And it don’t work like that no more.”
Two developments in the leadup to the Sept. 26 release came directly from fan feedback at Jackson’s Web site. First is the contest allowing fans to download approved images of the star and create their own cover designs. That process also gave the project its more contemporary “20 Y.O.” title, whittled from the original “20 Years Old.”
“I’ve been online, watching her Web site. The kids were already doing that, they created this contest on their own,” Dupri says. “They kept making covers. And they were actually making stuff better than Virgin was giving me. I thought, ‘Wow, we should create a contest and make these kids come up with something.'”