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.
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] Johnta 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.”
Basically, the album is everything that’s always been a part of me, but with freshness to it.
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 what 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 to 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.
Jermaine has said the album will include a duet between you and Mariah Carey. Is that still in the works?
We want to do something together, and we’re trying to make something happen. However, it’s been really tough since she’s on tour. But it’s something we definitely desire to do.
He has also mentioned plans to stage a “Control” concert a la Jay-Z’s recent “Reasonable Doubt” performance in New York. Has a date or dates been set?
That idea came from the fans, saying how cool it would be. It’s just a matter of getting it done. We haven’t figured out the cities, but hopefully it will happen this year.
Before “Control,” you recorded two albums: a self-titled debut, followed by “Dream Street.” How do those albums fare in your looking glass?
I don’t exclude those albums from my life and career like they never existed. [The] producers were wonderful to work with. It’s just that I didn’t want to sing then. I did it for my father. Then I was told what to sing.
I celebrate “Control” because that’s when I made the decision that singing is what I wanted to do. Working so close with Jimmy and Terry and writing about my life … that was the start of my music career. And that’s why those two albums have a different meaning for me.
Besides Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, how pivotal a role did John McClain play in your career?
I would say, well, John was doing his job. He was an A&R person [at A&M] and definitely an important person in the beginning with “Control.” My family knew him from way back. But he really didn’t have anything to do with “Rhythm Nation.”
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: having a much happier life where I’m able to sit back, smile and enjoy everything that’s going on around me.
Was the buying-public’s reaction to “Damita Jo” what you expected?
A lot of people said they didn’t even know the project was out, and I think that had a lot to do with the response. Yet a lot of fans in Europe came up to me saying they absolutely felt it was my best album.
There were all kinds of reactions to the album, and there was obviously a lot of drama surrounding that album as well. Plus deadlines are hard for me; I don’t like being forced to do things when you know you’re not ready; when you’re on the right path but you know you haven’t gotten to the place you want to be. That’s what it was about for me.
Do you feel any added pressure each time you record in terms of maintaining your chart success?
There is no pressure. It’s about experimenting and putting things together that don’t normally go together. Like [opera singer] Kathleen Battle doing “This Time” on the “janet.” album. It’s about writing from the heart, life experiences and following my gut.
What would you consider the highest and lowest points in your career?
“Velvet Rope” is both the highest and lowest point. On a personal level, it was a low point, because I was going through a depression. That was a difficult time for me. At the same time it was my highest point, because I overcame the depression by talking about the crossroads I was at.
There were so many things resurfacing that I’d suppressed: stuff from my childhood, stuff from all over the place. I was crazed trying to figure out where it was all coming from and how to deal with it.
I could have made a wrong turn and tried to drink and drug it away. But drinking and drugs never appealed to me. I wanted it to stop. Talking it out and creating such an introspective work as “Velvet Rope” helped me do that.
Some people might expect you to say your low point was 2004’s wardrobe malfunction.
That’s the past. [Jackson’s publicist intervened and stopped this line of questioning.]
You first gained national attention as a sitcom actor, later turning to films. Do you plan to resume your acting career?
I do. It’s a passion of mine that came before music. I’ve got scripts I have to read that I haven’t gotten to just yet, but we’ll see. I’ve read some comedy scripts, but I’d love to do something very dramatic and something more action-packed.
I would love to do more films and more behind the scenes in terms of producing films and creating television shows. Also, so many people have come up to me to talk about my weight loss, so we’re going to do a book and a video on that.
Given your music experience, have you ever thought about starting your own label or producing new artists?
At one point, there was some part of that that I found very interesting. If anything, it would probably not be another artist but something from a creative aspect. I can’t even imagine trying to run a record label. You would have so many headaches running left and right. I’ve got to have some fun, so it would be something more on the creative end.
From your perspective, how has R&B evolved during the last 20 years?
Music is always evolving. In terms of R&B, it feels like it’s going to take another turn. You can hear the tempos changing, and artists are pushing for a little change. It’s a matter of whether or not the audience is ready for a change.
There are also more women coming into play-and not just in R&B. A journalist asked me that once a while back, and I said that would happen. And slowly and surely it is happening. You’re seeing a lot of female artists who are talented and doing very well.
What’s your take on having to compete against these female artists?
I’ve already been where they are. Many of them only have one or two albums at this point. At the risk of sounding arrogant, it’s not often that an artist lasts as long as I have who can be consistent and whose work is still anticipated. There’s something to be said for that. It will be curious to see 20 years from now who’s still around.
Any predictions as to who will follow in your 20-year footsteps?
I’m sure there will obviously be somebody, but I don’t know who.
Do you feel labels treat veteran artists with deserved respect these days?
Granted, everybody wants to make money. But I remember when they thought more of the artists, their music and career longevity. I felt more of that in the past than you feel today. It’s just a different game, different all around.
I was talking to someone earlier about how it used to be so taboo to endorse anything other than a soft drink. You were selling out if you did. Today, you can sell a sock and it’s OK.
Even with films. People in the film industry didn’t want anyone from the music industry, and people from the music industry didn’t want anyone from the film industry. Now they do. It’s all money-driven. They’re realizing how they can capitalize off one another, and they’re going for it.
I’m sure you get bombarded about endorsements and other business ventures. Yet you haven’t taken the bait. Why not?
People have definitely asked me, but I really have to love something in order to do it. I can’t do it just because it may be a very lucrative deal. It has to be something I really like from my heart is not going to go into it and I’m not going to have any fun. Maybe that’s the kid in me. I love to have fun.
And as an artist, are you still having fun?
Yes. I can’t sit here and take credit for everything. Everyone has someone behind them, and 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 a lot of money. But I really love what I do.