hat they gave each other was obvious.
Janet Jackson—pop empress, infamous nymphet, despoiler of Super Bowls—presented Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis with the lure of a singular narrative, the promise of a career artist who could deliver their music beyond charts and radio and into the realm of lore. In turn, the songwriting/producing team—Prince protégés, low-profile titans, indefatigably sharp-dressed men—provided Jackson with chart-topping mentors who would evolve into perennial collaborators, seasoned R&B; vets who shepherded the burgeoning diva while she found her bearings, then gradually and gracefully allowed the pop phenomenon to surpass them and take the reins herself. The torch thus passed, they continued to offer the kind of steadily unobtrusive presence that prevented full-flowering Janet from ever being dogged by sexist and racist questions of lacking control over her own artistry.
Predictably, it all boils down to that single word, the title of Janet’s third album, her first with Jam and Lewis. Control. Control over your own career. Control over your own place in the history books (Janet’s as well as Jam & Lewis’). Control over the right to proclaim your own creative primacy in an industry built on trend-jumping and overnight shifts in the sonic zeitgeist.
Ironically, in the beginning it was Jam & Lewis who asserted control. Ironic not only because of what would come later, but because history still reckons Janet’s breakthrough album as the moment when she first and most famously took control, over her career and formidable family shadow. In truth, Janet Jackson would never again find herself so far removed from control, because Control was more about music and less about words than any of the records that followed, and words—the story, the confession, the personality, the public woman—were Janet’s most critical contribution to the creation of her legend. The album’s brightly metallic dance-pop was overwhelmingly Jam & Lewis’ design, the grooves stretched-out and sustained, Janet’s much-maligned vocals (“dinky” was Jim Farber’s judgment) largely an afterthought. With Janet veering haphazardly between the salacious “Nasty” and coyly demure “Let’s Wait Awhile,” Control hardly suggested the birth of indelible artistic identity.
Rhythm Nation 1814 followed, but even as Jam & Lewis again assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for its harsher, darker monoliths, a larger-than-life icon was busy coming to the surface. While a pop star first and foremost (“Escapade,” “Miss You Much”), this black-clad dance-club militant would also come equipped with a believably aching soul (“Come Back to Me”) and a globally-attuned brain (“State of the World”).
And so the enduring template was set. No matter the decade or prevailing trend, almost every one of Janet Jackson’s subsequent hits—from “Alright” to “That’s the Way Love Goes” to “Go Deep” to “Someone to Call My Lover” to “Truly”—would bear that consistent stamp of pop primacy and a potent mix of passionate self-possession and vulnerability minus self-pity.
As Jackson’s confidence and songwriting prowess blossomed, the boys relented more of the load, and the music itself softened as if to match. So was birthed the erogenous jams of janet., the organic explorations of The Velvet Rope, the warm grooves of All for You, and the unheralded plushness of Damita Jo. The balance of power had clearly shifted, but this was no bitter emancipation. Jackson simply matured into an intelligent, provocative, revelatory artist, her spiritual kin Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Madonna rather than Paula Abdul or Tiffany, and while her private life and public persona proved famously tumultuous, she experienced remarkably few artistic growing pains.
Jackson’s uncanny ability to remain permanently near the pop-culture vanguard is impressive enough, but coupled with a fiercely unflagging iconoclasm and vigorous independent streak, her position in pop is nothing short of legend, and she owes a wealth of that freedom to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. With their presence and support, Janet was free to embrace a variety of sounds and styles without ever giving the appearance of simply riding the industry’s latest hot hand, latching onto whatever producer happened to be the flavor of the month—who likely would have taken far more liberties with Jackson’s artistic essence than Jam & Lewis ever did. That essence consisted not only of Janet’s musical DNA but also her increasingly sophisticated lyricism and challenging social commentary. janet. may have gotten down to brass tacks sexually, with insistent hits like “If” and “Anytime, Anyplace,” but its endlessly compelling follow-up The Velvet Rope left no stone unturned, addressing AIDS (“Together Again”), same-sex fantasies (the gender-fucked cover of Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night”), domestic abuse (“What About”), and the boundaries of kink (“Rope Burn”). At last, here was real control—Janet was wholly responsible for raising these knotty issues in her music, and even if successive albums scaled back the outspokenness, there would still be moments of provocation like “Son of a Gun,” “Moist,” and “Sexhibition.”
Certainly Jam & Lewis deserve a great deal of credit for fostering that iconic MO, but their partnership with Jackson was far from a one-way street. Specifically, Janet gave the duo something the likes of Cherelle, Johnny Gill, and Ralph Tresvant never could, namely the chance to prove themselves as more than just hitmakers, but as true sonic architects and long-form visionaries. The albums were their canvas just as much as they were Jackson’s, helping Jam & Lewis escape the ghetto of critical marginalization that greeted the mature, sleekly urbane R&B; they made their name with in the early 80s. In the two decades since they first allied with Janet, Jam & Lewis’ sound has undergone drastic changes, but still they’ve managed to cling to that hard-won artistic credibility even as they continue to evolve with the marketplace. Savvy enough to recognize they couldn’t stick to formula and keep up with pop’s fluid, fickle tastes, the only constant of their work with Jackson has been to make the kind of music that will get the most bodies on the dancefloor. No need to fool too much with artifice or misdirection, just deliver something that’ll keep the butts out of the seats. After all, they could always leave the artistic pretensions to Ms. Janet.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a black female overcoming those twin social stigmas and still forging an artistic identity so closely hewn to traditional rock models (Aretha probably came closest, though Lauryn Hill was certainly once on course to surpass them both), but Janet presented the total package of autobiographical lyrics, a willingness to bait controversy, and a highly developed social conscience. It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of those traits and how they reflected upon Jam & Lewis. Fair or not, the duo’s association with Jackson is what made them auteurs as well, a designation they may never have truly earned with critics and historians without her inimitable partnership. In a sense Jam & Lewis made Janet Jackson. In another sense, she helped make them.