The Singles Jukebox
Jam and Lewis



and so we conclude our Hall of Fame week with Michael, Karyn, Johnny, Alexander, Cherrelle, Janet, two bands, and a host of Stylus writers offering up their criticism, praise, befuddlement, amazement, and genuine admiration for one of the finest production duo’s ever to grace the musical landscape. Enjoy.


Sounds of Blackness – The Pressure
[5.4]

Ian Mathers: For some reason it never occurred to me that any of these singles would be gospel house, but Sounds of Blackness give it a credible stab. The beat is more electronic/dance music than I had expected, and of course the gospel choir above it gives it some stick, even if some of the individual singers sound sampled. And while it goes round and round instead of building to anything—it's just circumspect enough that even atheists can love it.
[6]

John M. Cunningham: The tracklist on the dust-covered Sounds of Blackness case on my CD shelf informs me that I've heard this song before, but a) I honestly haven't listened to it in at least ten years (it was a one-cent BMG purchase, along with TLC and Me Phi Me), and b) my only real jam from it was the upbeat, groove-oriented "Optimistic." Jam and Lewis's innovation with the gospel group was to apply a new-jack style to their spiritual sound—but too often this had a homogenizing effect, to the point where a song like "The Pressure" wouldn't sound out of place at a designer jeans store, alongside generic acid jazz.
[5]

Andrew Unterberger: Maybe I’m sort of a sucker for melancholy piano-led early-90s diva house, but I don’t really understand why I’m only hearing this for the first time now. Perhaps it’s because Goldie’s “Inner City Life” came out shortly afterwards with similar themes and didn’t date itself quite so instantly, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still pretty cool and resonant stuff.
[7]

Mallory O’Donnell: Deep house in the...er, house! It's a more sustained, flattened-out groove than we're used to hearing from Jam & Lewis, but they're to be given points for attempting the genre exercise and coming away with something that doesn't sound totally awful. That being said, the end result is more or less forgettable, despite some really fine secularized gospel vocals and great ethereal synths. Perhaps the clichés traded in on "Pressure" were in part created by songs such as these, but I can't help but think that Jam & Lewis should have brought some of their trademark bells and whistles to bear on this one.
[4]


Janet Jackson – Rhythm Nation
[5.8]

Ian Mathers: Unsurprisingly, the only part of this I remember even slightly is the “we are a part of the rhythm nation” refrain. Still, I can't help thinking of the quasi-factory from the video when I hear the clunkily mechanical backing, and, honestly, I spend the whole song wanting to go listen to the Art of Noise instead. Which makes me wonder what associations we're going to start making once today's production styles start sounding as dated (or “classic” if you're being nice) as 1989 does. Which are all things I'm thinking of because this is more of a loop than a song, and not one that has dated well. The mind tends to wander.
[5]

Andrew Unterberger: Democracy through dancing is a lot more palatable a concept when it’s complemented by Sly & the Family Stone’s funkiest break EVAH. Janet never sounded this harsh again—maybe she didn’t need to—but shit, is this hot.
[8]

Mallory O’Donnell: Easily my least favorite single from a great, great album, "Rhythm Nation" has always been a song that works for me in context, but feels a bit shoddy on its own. I, too, long for a world beyond black and white, where music acts as common denominator to bring us all together as one swaying, high-stepping, joyous brown people. But in "Rhythm Nation," Janet acts like it's a done deal, and nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps it's the eight-year old white kid that came into my record store today looking for "Johnny Rebel" CDs (don't Google it, just don't) that's got me soured, but what we need is for the Rhythm Nation to secede from this Hateful Kingdom. Until then, let us carry hope in our pockets but be wary of such wishful thinking.
[4]

John M. Cunningham: As the leadoff track proper to Janet's fourth solo record, "Rhythm Nation" is effective as a statement of intent: 1814 is going to be more dynamic, more grandiose, and more political than Control. But as a stand-alone single, it doesn't work nearly as well as the equally commanding but more concise "Escapade," "Miss You Much," and "Black Cat." In this particular case, the classic Jam and Lewis production feels overcooked.
[6]


Karyn White – Romantic
[5.8]

Ian Mathers: For a song talking so fervently about being romantic, this isn't actually very bedroom-y, and it's not quite feverish enough for the dance floor. Getting ready to go out, maybe? The chorus practically begs to be hummed along to while fixing your hair, and it's just catchy enough to make you sway gently back and forth without actually busting a move. Filler, but good filler.
[6]

Alfred Soto: I have to remind myself that Karyn White was a semi-star in the late ‘80s. She scored three top 10's, none of which get much airplay anymore except on urban quiet-storm stations, of which this is the biggest. Like fellow neglected late '80s/early '90s R&B songstress Jody Watley, White was at her best when she eschewed self-expression and allowed producers to insert her innocuous voice in a boisterous setting—in this case a Jam-Lewis production stitched from Alexander O'Neal and Janet leftovers. One of the last new jack swing hits before the Top 40's acclimatization to hip-hop sent every diva except Mary J. Blige and Mariah Carey to the clearance bin.
[4]

William B. Swygart: There is a brief attempt at maintaining the pretence that “it’s time to get romantic” means something other than “and now, we fuck wild,” but it all comes crashing down around the time the scratching breakdown butts in. Bloody good scratching breakdown tho.
[7]

Mallory O’Donnell: Hey! It's a club jam about... slowing down and making out. It must be the early 90's. Never has someone sang "light a candle" to such a boisterous backing track and made it work. Jump up and down! It's tender! Moonlight, incense, all that shit! Karyn wants to go to bed, but I've gotta finish bouncing off the walls first. Anyone who dances with someone to this song and actually takes them home better make it sweet and full of loving caresses when they get there, or I'll be wicked pissed.
[5]


Michael Jackson ft. Janet Jackson – Scream
[6.2]

John M. Cunningham: I haven't really tapped into Jacko's catalogue post-Dangerous, so this is somewhat better than I was expecting. Coming on the heels of the first child-molestation scandal, the song's lyrics betray a mixture of frustration and paranoia that's hard to know how to take, depending on your level of sympathy. But it's musically solid, and it somehow makes me envision Jackson stepping through and shattering a plate-glass window, as he raises his fist to the sky, in control. Which, let's face it, is awesome.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Little holds this song together apart from its novelty. It sounded dated in 1995.
[4]

Mallory O’Donnell: I used to be unable to divorce this song from the self-consciously black and white Romanek video. Having recently rewatched it, I actually find it easier to do so now, since that the video failed to live up to my memories. (Perhaps, at the time, Michael-in-space was cool and not saddening.) If the video hasn't aged well, the song itself makes up for it. All the action and FX in here—from the unidentifiable washes of sound over the verse to the "city" sounds to the white noise fade-out—suggest long nights of bleary-eyed studio work. It's such a brave, widescreen production to put together for a MJ song, packed so full yet retaining its unadulterated sproinginess. There's hardly any room for Mike to move around in, but he manages to squeeze off some whoos and hees and that husky Thriller thing before the pressure gets too much and crash! Everything comes falling down.
[9]

Andrew Unterberger: The best 90s MJ single? Yeah, it’s impossible to disassociate with the video so I won’t even try (SPACE PONG MORPHING JANET GIVING THE FINGER HOLY SHIT) but ultimately the song dictated the video and not vice versa, and Jam & Lewis were maybe the only producers at the time who could’ve managed that. The song’s too weird to be an iconic single for either artist, and as such represents a fascinating anomaly in the careers of both.
[7]


Janet Jackson – Go Deep
[6.4]

Ian Mathers: Apparently the smoother (smoover?) Janet is the one I like; this is partway between “Someone to Call My Lover” and “Rhythm Nation” although, as you can tell by the score, much closer to the former. Not the best single from The Velvet Rope (that'd be the curiously sublime “Got 'Til It's Gone”), but a fine one nonetheless, with Janet’s almost hushed vocals and a couple of percussive spangles working that chorus into a docile groove. More proof Janet is usually a welcome presence on the radio, although nothing life-changing.
[7]

John M. Cunningham: As I cued up the opening 20 seconds of "Go Deep," with its simple, steady beat and fat synth line, at first I was all "haha, Hot Chip" and then suddenly I was like, "Oh shit, this would seriously make for a killer DFA remix." Which I swear isn't about me trying to legitimize bedroom R&B by association with hipster catnip, since I don't actually have much aversion to silk sheets or late-period Janet, but just listen to this and tell me it's not a good idea. Galkin, are you on this?
[8]

Alfred Soto: The squelchy synth-bass goes deep—all the way, in fact, poking and exploring. Janet proves why she’s the ideal erotic object: she just lies there and takes it. Once in a while it’s okay, but you do want your lover to act as if he/she enjoys what you’re doing.
[7]

Andrew Unterberger: For a song that has not only cowbell and an “Atomic Dog”-esque groove but that cool POING sound last heard in Tony Toni Tone’s “Let’s Get Down,” this song is remarkably…unremarkable. Maybe it’s just the lyrical conceit—Janet doesn’t get any sleep because she’s up all night to the early light, wonderful—but the song, cool breaks aside, just fails to make much of an impression. Remember the video, though, with the bubbles? I think Kel Mitchell was in it.
[6]


Johnny Gill – Rub You the Right Way
[6.4]

John M. Cunningham: After New Edition broke up, its former members were left to figure out how to shed the boy band's squeaky clean image as they embarked on new projects. Ralph Tresvant kept up the Casanova act on "Sensitivity," while Bobby Brown (who'd already gone solo) maintained romantic airs before he started humpin' around. Both Bell Biv Devoe and Johnny Gill, however, wasted no time in boasting of their sexual prowess. Shortly after B.B.D. emerged with the cartoonishly explicit "Do Me!"—"smack it up, flip it, rub it down, oh no!"—Gill went ahead with some rubbing of his own, with a euphemistic title that sounded decidedly dirtier than whatever actual act it described. (Or at least it did to easily embarrassed eleven-year-olds like me.) The result is a compellingly aggressive new-jack swing hit with a hook that manages to overcome Gill's vocal straining.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Delivering the most salacious male vocal ever on a Jam-Lewis record, the New Edition baritone rides it like he knows that he was third in line after Bobby Brown and Bell Biv Devoe (but not Ralph Tresvant). In the summer of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and Peter Murphy’s “Cuts You Up” (not to mention “Poison”), this track’s ferocity made them sound like Wilson Phillips in comparison. This should have been the most imitated pop track of the subsequent five years; since it wasn’t, I’ll just honor it as the best example of the greatness of new jack swing.
[8]

William B. Swygart: Ber-limey. Perspiration and steam pour out of the speakers as Gill grunts and huffs an ode to his ‘magic hands’ and their massaging skills. The amount of tenderness displayed in his voice does make one wonder if he’s not confused ‘all-over body rub’ with ‘reverse naked choke,’ but still; as a slice of pure, unfettered raunch, this is quite something.
[8]

Ian Mathers: I'm sorry, maybe this is a generational thing, but I can't hear that squealing sound without thinking Ghostbusters. And Gill is laying it on thick enough that this'd sound silly regardless, but picturing the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man singing “Rub You the Right Way” is a bridge too far.
[4]


Janet Jackson – Someone to Call My Lover
[6.8]

John M. Cunningham: Stylus contributor Clem Bastow recently named this song's appropriation of America's "Ventura Highway" as one of the most audacious samples in pop—a distinction I'm inclined to agree with. In Jam and Lewis's hands, the freewheeling California breeziness of the '70s soft-rock charmer becomes a surprisingly suitable backdrop for Janet's bubbly daydreams. And in contrast to much of their work, they're also careful not to add too much, trusting a lightly insistent beat to center the song's loveliness.
[9]

Andrew Unterberger: The first time I heard this song my jaw pretty much dropped. I was thrilled when I first heard the “Ventura Highway” lick—a song I’ve loved for as long as I can remember—but I was also scared, since I couldn’t imagine how it could be seamlessly interpolated. But Jam & Lewis exceed expectations yet again here, and if Janet’s funky car aspirations fall a little bit flat, it’s entirely forgivable in a song as blissful (and for late-period Janet, shockingly innocent) as this.
[8]

Mallory O’Donnell: I've never cared for this song. Perhaps it's the faux Timbaland beat with the acoustic strumming on top, or maybe it's just that I fell in love with the dominant, aggressive Janet at an early age. I have a similar problem with recent Destiny's Child singles about washing their man's feet and all that. Janet can do sensual and/or dominant like few others, but she really isn't fooling me with the submissive act.
[2]

Alfred Soto: I’m still not convinced that Jam-Lewis’ sudden need to sample classic warhorses (Joni Mitchell on “Got Til It’s Gone”; Change on “All for You”) bespoke their loyalty to the Western Rock Canon. In fact, if I were the Harold Bloom of the rock-crit world, I’d argue that they understood how modern R&B at its most crassest and yummiest demanded a knowledge of its past that was as much lucrative as meta. Although “Ventura Highway” has got fuck-all to do with R&B I’d just as soon prefer to listen to how Janet glides over the chorus like she’s lubed herself with some great KY than call the real Harold Bloom to explicate its significance. Bloom doesn’t like Alice Walker much, you know.
[7]


SOS Band – Just Be Good to Me
[6.8]

Alfred Soto: This breathless hybrid of freestyle rudiments, New Order guitar hysterics, disco lusciousness, and hi-NRG wants you to love it all at once: you want to dance, sing in the car, and stare stonily at your white knuckles, in love and alone. When the chorus comes around one last time—and Mary Davis’ pleas assume a determination that’s quite chilling—you hope for his safety’s sake that the errant lover heeds her warning.
[9]

Ian Mathers: Wow, this is cold. Like, Costello cold. “I don't care what you do to them, just be good to me.” And the music, from that imperious opening onwards, projects a similar chilly air. This is a hell of a lot closer to a lot of the 80s synth pop I already enjoy than the other singles here, and it turns out I love Jam & Lewis' take on that kind of sound. Not nearly as infectious as most of the other singles here, but a thing of remote beauty nonetheless.
[8]

Mallory O’Donnell: Whenever I feel that R&B errs too much either on the side of butch dominance or femme passivity, it's a song like this that renews my faith. It's never really clear whether "just be good to me" is a request or a demand, and it's that very vagueness that gets me excited. A swirling, epic array of keys and strings coexisting with clattering beats, jazz-funk bass and from-the-throat vocals doesn't hurt either. SOS were responsible for some massive singles, with or without Jam and Lewis, but this one hits the mark with near-perfect contributions from all concerned. A psychedelicized post-disco jukebox jam that delves into the uncertain netherworld of human relations? Count me in.
[10]

Andrew Unterberger: The first sign that Jam & Lewis were here to stay? Probably, though in the end I probably prefer Cherrelle’s sexual free-for-all to this S.O.S. slow burn. Still, in the (upcoming) words of Fatboy Slim, this is jam hot. I really need to find these guys’ hits comp.
[7]


Alexander O'Neal – Fake
[7.0]

Ian Mathers: O'Neal has a nicely gritty voice, especially during the increasingly impassioned ending, and those HUGE synth stabs as the song ends are also impressive. It's just that, up until that last minute, this is a little underwhelming. O'Neal is obviously one hell of a performer, but he needs to turn up the heat for the duration of the song. Too much simmer, not enough boil.
[7]

Mallory O’Donnell: "Innocent" and "Criticize" are probably my favorite Alexander O'Neal jams, but "Fake" is pretty damn close. "It's lyin' season"—I love it! You know this "false eyelashes" chick has a weave and those long curly fingernails lacquered some unreasonable glare-inducing color like aquamarine. Jam & Lewis bring their coiled-up New Jack funk with the usual bag of tricks, but on this joint they make like they're lashing out at this girl with every "fake!" out of O'Neal's mouth. Sure, he's playing drama queen a bit, and she probably never called him Clyde, but the superficiality of the song is reflective of its subject, and besides, you totally know this girl, and she's F-A-K-E!
[8]

William B. Swygart: “And I’m disgusted!” R Kelly without the dumbness, O’Neal checking off his list of things he hates about you—“Your hair was long, and now it’s short! You said “I got it cut!”… last night you called me Clyde!”—as the beat heel, toe and pivots its way through the streetlamps. I don’t think the video involved Alex strutting in a variety of dayglo zoots, occasionally stopping to mop the sweat from his brow with a nearby towel, but my, it really should have done.
[8]

Andrew Unterberger: Jam and Lewis know how to push my buttons with songs like this. Songs with dudes listing bizarrely blown out-of-proportion complaints about females mistreating them, coupled with a chorus that shouts non-specific accusations at their oppressors…what can I say, I’m putty in their hands. All that’s missing is a long, unnecessarily detailed Oran “Juice” Jones-style monologue at the end explaining O’Neal’s revenge. After all, he’s not gonna let her get away with this, is he?
[7]


Cherrelle – I Didn't Mean to Turn You On
[8.0]

John M. Cunningham: When I downloaded this song last week, it occurred to me that I already knew it: DJ/singer Colette turned it into a shimmering house confection on her debut record from last year. However, as much as that version stands out, it doesn't trump the original, which has brisk, wheezing synths shifting around Cherrelle's clear-pitched vocals and then overwhelming them with a damn near psychedelic solo. There's also a neat irony to the song's sultriness: she may not have meant to turn anyone on, but she's doing a pretty good job at it now. Of the two other covers I found, Robert Palmer's version is appropriately sleek and his voice uncharacteristically understated, while Mariah Carey's is probably too faithful to be interesting.
[9]

Alfred Soto: For years all I knew was Robert Palmer’s 1987 cover, one of his biggest hits. Nice performance too: Palmer for once doesn’t let the puddles show under his armpits; the song unmasks him as a fortysomething lech who’s addicted to love cuz he knows the younger chicks find him simply irresistible (or at least compelling enough to blankly mime instruments and wear moist-cherry lipstick for His Slickness). Cherrelle doesn’t project anything; she’s a hot thing gyrating in time to a Dirty Mind-era Prince backing track, just lucky to sound like Vanity and Apollonia and doing a damn fine job of it.
[6]

William B. Swygart: And so after about two and a half minutes, you look at the clock and think “Yeah, this is great, but is it just gonna stay like this for the next five minutes?” Cos this would work perfectly over two and a half to three minutes, but seven is a bit much. Then you realise that that’s for DJ’ing purposes. Then you realise that, being the DJ, you can stop it at any time, just at the moment it stops being perfect. Then you feel very happy indeed.
[8]

Mallory O’Donnell: It's a party jam, it's an open letter, it's a plausible explanation for not sleeping with someone, it's a song so good it was covered by...Robert Palmer! Any clip-clop R&B track that hints at Latin freestyle music while containing a blistering guitar solo is pretty much guaranteed to turn me on, so I'll accept Cherrelle's apology and get on with the business of enjoying myself in a musical capacity. The concept here hasn't been addressed nearly enough in pop music, as dominant as romance is to the genre. One supposes navigating the gray area between friendship and love doesn't translate to record sales. Still, the vocals and delivery here are slight enough that it's become almost anthemic—even more so with the unexpected gender flip of Mr. Palmer's version. File next to Jermaine Stewart and prepare the cold shower.
[7]


Check out the Singles Jukebox podcast to hear some of the tracks talked about here.


By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-04-21
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