Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ Revisited By Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis: Track-by-Track ReviewSeptember 19, 2014
If Janet Jackson’s third album, 1986’s Control, was a declaration of independence, the follow-up, Rhythm Nation 1814, was a constitution — a blueprint for the kind of country that this confident, sexy and newly independent 23-year old woman wanted to live in.
At least it was for roughly a third of its runtime.
Released 25 years ago tomorrow (Sept. 19, 1989), Rhythm Nation 1814 begins with a pledge: “We are a nation with no geographic boundaries, bound together through our beliefs.” From there, it goes into the title track, a national anthem for this colorblind utopia Janet has imagined. The four digits in the album’s title refer to the year “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written, and with the help of James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis — the production team behind Control — Jackson gives Francis Scott Key’s greatest hit a New Jack Swing remake.
Rhythm Nation stays political for a few songs and then segues into kinder, gentler relationship songs, many of which dominated radio and MTV. An unprecedented seven of the album’s singles made the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100, and four of them — “Miss You Much, “Escapade,” “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and “Black Cat” — hit No. 1. The album, not surprisingly, topped the Billboard 200, vaulting Janet to a level of pop mega-stardom almost on par with that of her brother Michael Jackson.
In honor of the record’s silver anniversary, Jam and Lewis led Billboard on a track-by-track trek down Memory Lane, offering their thoughts on the disc’s 13 non-interlude songs. The duo produced and wrote or co-wrote all but one, the hard-rock detour “Black Cat,” which Janet penned and helmed herself. Read on to see how these Minneapolis legends remember Janet’s breakout LP.
Jimmy Jam: It needed to be anthemic. That was the whole point. It was the anchor of the album, the title track. I think we really achieved it. It has a great energy. The thing to remember, as I always say with all of Janet’s stuff, is that she’s such a visual artist. It’s really hard to listen to the song and not think of the imagery and all the choreography that go along with it. That’s the bonus we get with a record like that. We get to see the performance that goes along with it.
“State of the World”
Terry Lewis: At the time, we were trying to make some statements about worldly things. The song was created from conversation. We used to talk about everything before we would even engage in starting a song. We went on talking tirades, just conversational tirades, trying to figure out not only what was going on in the world, but what was going on in Janet’s head. I don’t think it’s overtly political. It’s just drawing attention to the things of the time. In the history of music, there’s always been a social commentary with most artists that were substantial artists. You can only talk about so much love and clubs. You have to bring some awareness and have a voice in the times that you live in. That happens to be one of those songs.
Lewis: We got the song title in London. We were speaking to a cab driver. Over there, every cab driver knows how to get everywhere, because they take a test that’s kind of like a map quiz. They know every street, every address in London. It’s called “The Knowledge.” When we heard that title, we wrote it down. When we had discussions about all these different things — social commentary — “The Knowledge” just popped up. And with Janet being associated in a lot of different ways with education, it just seemed fitting to use that subject matter and fuse it all together.”
“Miss You Much”
JJ: That was the first song Janet heard when she walked in the studio. I remember that when she walked in the studio, I pointed at a note on the keyboard and told her to press that note. She pressed it, and that note ended up becoming the high string line in the chorus to the song. It’s the record that got us off and running on the project. I love Janet’s attitude on records. I think she sings that song with so much attitude.
“Love Will Never Do (Without You)”
JJ: At one point, we thought about doing it as a duet with Prince. It never happened, obviously. That’s the reason she sings the first verse low and the second verse high. It became a duet with herself. It was a thought. I don’t know how serious of a thought. This happens a lot — you’re doing a song, and you go, “You know who would sound good on this? Prince would be kind of cool.” It wasn’t any big thing, like we wrote it for him or anything. But then we thought, “Oh, it’s cool the way it is,” so we just left it like that.
“Livin’ In a World (They Didn’t Make)”
Lewis: [We were] just thinking about the turmoil that kids go through to become young adults and then adults. We throw so much mess into the situation for kids a lot of times, as a society, because we act without listening; that makes kids very uneasy about things, and rebellious. They didn’t ask to be here, which is something we say all the time. They didn’t ask to acquire the circumstances you put them in. We say they’re our future, but they’re our present, and being a kid is our past. We have to be little more mindful of those things, how we incorporate kids into our society. That song was born out of that concept, because they didn’t choose to be here. Our responsibility is to teach them responsibility.
Lewis: I love “Alright.” I love the swing aspect of it. I love the incorporation of and collaboration with Heavy D [on the remix]. I love the happiness of the song. It’s a song that comes on and makes you immediately smile. I love the video for that song. It was one big shot. I think it might have been one or two cuts in the whole video. It was a masterpiece. It’s more than friendship in that song; it’s just a feeling that song gives: “It’s alright. It’s OK to be who you are. It’s OK to be my friend. It’s OK to think what you think. Whatever you’re doing is cool with me. I’m not being judgmental.’ That song gives you that feeling. Music is all about feeling, even when the lyrics don’t say exactly that. But when the words correspond with the feeling, it’s especially powerful.
JJ: I love “Escapade.” Janet wanted to have a song you’d hear at basketball games — big-crowd-type places — and that’s how we came up with the really big beat. The whole “Escapade” idea, that’s lyrically hers. The track on that song was just a rough track we intended on redoing, and it never happened. Literally, the track on that song is like one track of drums, a bass line played on my left hand and a keyboard line played on my right hand, with really not a lot of overdubs on there.
JJ: Janet was a tough producer. Man, she had me redoing parts a million times. [laughs] It was her way of getting back at us. We went into the booth at the end to do the [sings] “Black cat…” part, and she had us in there for hours. We’re going, “Janet, we don’t sing.” “No, do that again!” It was a great idea, great guitar riff. Jellybean Johnson, the drummer for the Time, who’s also a great guitar player, ended up working with her on that and did a great job. If I recall correctly, the solo on that song was actually done by three people … Janet did a fantastic job. It was fun to play on. Janet would ask me, “What do you think?” And I’d say, “Nope, you’re the producer.” [laughs] It was cool.
Lewis: It seemed like one of those songs that would be real comforting. Everyone has moments of loneliness, no matter how many people are around you, or how many people think you’re wonderful. When you get in your introverted state, your feel like you’re alone, but you’re never alone, because there’s always someone you can reach out to. That’s what that song was all about: “Anytime you need me, call me. When you’re lonely, I’ll be there for you.” Nobody should feel like they’re alone. That’s probably one of the most feared feelings in the world, which causes a lot of hate and a lot of crime and a lot of everything. Everybody on earth has the same basic needs, and the biggest of these is to be loved and appreciated.
“Come Back to Me”
JJ: At the time we did it, it was one of my favorite songs. I loved the lyrics and the vocal on it. The interesting thing for me was the live strings. I never heard the strings when we were doing it. We’d kept it simple, and Janet said, “It’d be great to get some strings on this.” There was a guy in Minneapolis we used named Lee Blaskey, who was an incredible string guy. He arranged a lot of our string stuff. I said, “Hey, Lee, come up with a string thing for this,” and he did. We loved it so much that the end of the song, it basically fades out with just the strings as the last thing you hear.
“Someday is Tonight”
Lewis: New love! New love is always great. I don’t think you can have enough of those songs. The feeling of that first commitment to someone is always a special one, whether sexually or emotionally. That song is built on that premise. You’ll get to it someday, and that some day is right now! It’s very special — especially for young girls. The fact you can hold off and not be ready — [Janet] has [sang about] that in previous songs. And then one day, you just grow and make that commitment. It’s a beautiful thing.