What Have They Done For Us Lately?
hen most people think of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, it’s their late 80s and early 90s work that immediately comes to mind—their production and songwriting for New Edition, The Human League, and of course, long-time collaborator Janet Jackson, among others. However, unlike so many of their late-80s peers, Jam & Lewis’ star continued to shine brightly well through the 90s and even into the new millennium. Within the last decade, they’ve still managed a half-dozen #1 hits and countless others in the top 40, proving surprisingly adept at changing their sound to fit the times.
This should come as no real surprise to people who have been paying attention since Jam & Lewis broke out. In 1986 alone, they were responsible for the slamming electro-funk of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately,” the moody introspection of The Human League’s “Human,” and the beatless balladry of Force MDs’ “Tender Love,” all huge hits. Thankfully, they haven’t pigeonholed themselves since then: in the last decade they’ve worked with artists ranging from R&B; acts like Usher and Mariah Carey to pop icons like Gwen Stefani and Jessica Simpson to aging rockers like Rod Stewart and Bryan Adams and even to J-Pop star Utada Hikaru.
So here I present a portable CD’s worth of the best Jam & Lewis productions from 1996 to now. Not every artist they’ve worked with in that time is represented, and I had to leave off some big hits, but hopefully there’s enough left here to present a fairly convincing case for the duo still being a long ways off from irrelevancy and for their last ten years as hit-makers being almost as compelling as their first.
01. Usher – “U Remind Me” (from 8701, 2001)
It’s only fitting to start with J&L;’s biggest magic act of the last decade—essentially saving Usher from being a late-90s relic and helping him back on the path to becoming the biggest pop star of the new millennium. Jam & Lewis didn’t write “U Remind Me”—one of only two of the sixteen #1 hits they’ve produced which they don’t have writing credit—but their take on writer Eddie Clement’s demo turned the song, in the words of Arista president L.A. Reid, “from being off the record to being the first single.” And that it was, topping the US charts for four weeks and starting a string of top ten hits that’s still going on today. And for good reason—the song’s breezy but slightly melancholy production, especially with that unforgettable flute hook, perfectly wraps around Usher’s bittersweet vocals. If one song proved that Jam & Lewis were still a force to be reckoned with in the 00s, this was it.
02. Mary J. Blige ft. Nas – “Love is All We Need” (from Share My World, 1997)
And already, we have something completely different. While the production on “U Remind Me” was undeniably attention-grabbing, it was also rather sparse, mostly relying on the flute hook and some light keyboard accompaniment to propel the melody. Their work on Mary J. Blige’s “Love is All We Need,” however, is far closer to the lush, symphonic sound of 70s soul production team Gamble & Huff, replete with strings, harps, dense drum sounds, guitar, and countless smaller production flourishes that appear throughout the song. Which is good, because the song itself is actually fairly boring (save for Nas’s traditionally charismatic guest appearance), with Mary spouting uninteresting platitudes and a say-nothing chorus. Surrounded by Jam & Lewis’s production, though, you’ll barely notice.
03. Janet Jackson ft. Q-Tip & Joni Mitchell – “Got Til It’s Gone” (from The Velvet Rope, 1997)
For another gear change, we have Jam & Lewis’ neo-soul production for the lead single of Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope album. Radio didn’t take too kindly to it—this was before Lauryn Hill inspired so much of R&B; radio to sound like this—but it has since come to be one of her better-remembered 90s hits, partly because of Mark Romanek’s unforgettable video, but even moreso because of J&L;’s exceedingly smooth, Joni-Mitchell sampling production. Thanks to Q-Tip’s guest appearance, the uncharacteristic use of scratching, and a thick beat, it’s also one of their most hip-hop inspired productions.
04. Melanie B – “Feels So Good” (from Hot, 2001)
“Oh, I’m gonna get all soft and smoochy,” Mel promises at the beginning of the song, and indeed the track, reliant on heavy bell sounds and string accompaniment, is surprisingly cuddly and inviting for the Scary One from the Spice Girls. We never got much of a chance to hear it in the States, but it was a smash in the UK, hitting the top five (the last time for Mel, unfortunately)
05. Shaggy – “Dance & Shout” (from Hot Shot, 2001)
Riding an ingenious sample from The Jacksons/formerly the Jackson Five’s 1979 hit “Shake Your Body (To the Ground),” “Dance & Shout” is one of Shaggy’s most enjoyable hits, despite being eclipsed at the time by his pair of 2001 #1s, “Angel” and “It Wasn’t Me.” The song is surprisingly sample-reliant for a Jam & Lewis production, but when it sounds as good as this, it’s hard to complain.
06. TLC – “I’m Good at Being Bad” (from FanMail, 1999)
This is hardly one of Jam & Lewis’s most memorable productions, but it’s noteworthy as a moment of extreme naughtiness for T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chili. Sure, we all remember when they promised to give us the Red Light Special all through the night, but that’s still no preparation for this bawdy track, which makes such demands as needing a “crunk tight nigga / makes seven figgas […] ten inch or bigga / know how to lick it and stick it” and such observations as “a good man is so hard to find / Well, actually, a hard man is so good to find.”
07. Boyz II Men – “4 Seasons of Loneliness” (from Evolution, 1997)
After providing the Boyz with a six-week #1 with the somewhat weak “On Bended Knee,” Jam & Lewis were tapped for the first single from Evolution, “4 Seasons of Loneliness.” Though the song was technically a hit, advancing to #1 within two weeks of its debut, it was short-lived, and has since been fairly forgotten as one of the Boyz’s biggest hits. It’s too bad, though, since it’s one of Jam & Lewis’s best ballads, with a complex lyric reflecting the titular theme and some of their loveliest, most atmospheric production work. It may have been the beginning of the end for BIIM, but it was a hell of a way to go.
08. Mariah Carey – “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” (from Glitter, 2002)
A meta-curiosity of sorts. “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” was taken from Mariah Carey’s infamous (to say the least) feature-film debut Glitter, in which it featured as one of Mariah’s character Billie’s breakthrough hits. This is ironic, because Mariah’s J&L-produced; rendition was actually a cover of the Cherelle mid-80s hit, which was also produced by Jam & Lewis. Mariah’s traditionally breathy interpretation does the song proud, and the production, which obviously harkens back to the mid-80s with its synth squelches and computerized handclaps, is a worthy-enough J&L; tribute to…well, themselves.
09. Mya – “Free” (from the Bait soundtrack, 2001)
This discofied track for Mya was one of J&L;’s stronger dance-influenced late-period numbers. It provided Mya with a minor hit, albeit one that was rather forgotten between the giants of “Case of the Ex” and “Lady Marmalade.” The song even gives J&L; a little flex room with its two-minute outro, which is always a good thing.
10. Spice Girls – “Oxygen” (from Forever, 2000)
This J&L-produced; ballad for the final Spice Girls album, Forever, is a worthwhile contribution to the group’s swan song, joining the ranks of such great Spice ballads as “Too Much” and “2 Become 1.” Bonus points for not explaining the central “love is like oxygen” metaphor as explicitly and stupidly as Sweet did in the late 70s.
11. Jordan Knight – “Give it To You” (from Jordan Knight, 1999)
Back in the Spring of ’99, when boy bands were so hot on the scene that we were even giving out hits to the old-timers, former NKOTB heartthrob Jordan Knight scored a smash with this utterly bizarre loverman track. The ex-New Kid promises, among other things that “anyone can make you sweat / But I can keep you wet,” while Jam & Lewis support him with their best Timbaland impression, making occasional breaks for a faux-carnival romp. One of the funniest (and most disturbing) hits of the late 90s.
12. Crystal Waters – “Say…If You Feel Alright” (from Crystal Waters, 1997)
Another sample-reliant track, this time leaning on the peerless funk of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” It’s not quite as immediately grabbing as Crystal’s earlier hits, “100% Pure Love” or “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless),” but it’s ultimately just as infectious. In a somewhat ironic twist, Jam & Lewis would later work for Earth, Wind & Fire, producing a couple tracks on their 2005 album Illumination.
13. Usher – “Simple Things” (from Confessions, 2004)
Jam & Lewis followed up their work with Usher on “U Remind Me” by collaborating on four of the tracks on Usher’s ultra-super-mega-smash Confessions. None of them were pulled as singles (though “Bad Girl” got a shout out at the beginning of the video for “My Boo”) but “Simple Things” was definitely as single-worthy as most of the smash hits from that album, one of J&L;’s simplest but most effective and soulful grooves, matched with one of Usher’s least self-righteous and narcissistic vocals.
14. Nodesha – “Get It While It’s Hot” (from Nodesha, 2004)
As Nodesha herself says at the beginning of the track, “party music.” Indeed, this is one of the biggest bangers Jam & Lewis have produced this decade, which makes it a shame that this song went so unnoticed—hands up if you’ve even heard of Nodesha before, because I certainly hadn’t. Admittedly her vocal stylings are nothing too astounding, but on top of this beat and with appropriate enough get-the-party-started lyrics, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t more of a hit than it was.
15. Gwen Stefani – “Harajuku Girls” (from Love.Angel.Music.Baby, 2004)
Probably one of the three or four songs that hasn’t been pulled as a single from LAMB, this J&L-produced; number was quite possibly just too weird for the general public. Not just because of Gwen’s bizarrely homoerotic lyrics (think an East Asian “Rebel Girl”), but because of the song’s alien production—a disembodied funk-by-way-of-Midnite Vultures groove complemented by sparse guitar and unexpected synth squeaks. So while it’s a shame that a song this cool wasn’t a single and “Rich Girl” was, at least it’s somewhat explicable.
16. Mariah Carey – “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme)” (from Rainbow, 2000)
A torch song ballad whose bare, piano-led production recalls Jam & Lewis’s classic production work on Force MDs’ “Tender Love.” It probably wasn’t as huge of a career-defining hit as either producers or artist expected (look at that subtitle, yikes), but it’s definitely a worthy inclusion in Mariah’s diva oeuvre, sitting comfortably aside “Vision of Love” and “Hero”—more comfortably, anyway, than Mariah’s other J&L-produced; slow-burner, “Through the Rain.”
17. Janet Jackson – “Someone to Call My Lover” (from All for You, 2001)
One of the most unexpectedly awesome sample choices in modern music (America’s “Ventura Highway” for you non-soft rock obsessives) underlies one of Janet’s best late-period hits. In a period of her career where she seemed more intent to assert her sexuality with each single, “Lover” is almost disarmingly sweet and innocent, and it’s well complemented by the wistfulness of the always-classic America sample. Meanwhile, Jam & Lewis repeat the downbeat verse, upbeat chorus trick originally found in “Give it to You,” and create a total bliss-out of a groove around Janet’s sighing vocal. It’s the only way to end this compilation.