”The Velvet Rope’ Was a Challenging Record…’ My Conversation With Jimmy Jam
Among contemporary pop icons, Janet Jackson is a bit of an anomaly. Having long conquered the shadow cast by pop music’s most ubiquitous older brother, her career and discography is one of distinction. Whereas her contemporaries forged legacies on larger than life personas, the avant garde and the provocation of social norms; Janet carved her career out of sincerity, a passion for social justice, sensuality, fearless expression and arresting vulnerability. She maintains the aura of a superstar while remaining within reach of her fans. Her music and concerts are inclusive spaces which Janet herself occupies alongside her fans as opposed to above them. She relates to their pain, dreams and desires—and shares her own. She is strong and vulnerable, assertive and bashful, private and transparent; a girlish demeanor that also conveys womanly prowess. Those seemingly conflicting qualities all act as complementary facets of her artistry.
1997s The Velvet Rope embodies those paradoxes. Both of its time and ahead of its time, Janet Jackson's sixth album is a testament to her multidimensionality and penchant for musical experimentation. The sonically futuristic "Empty" speaks to lonesomeness while optimistically exploring the then-burgeoning possibility of finding love on the internet. It's one of many explorative tracks on the album: the self interrogative and trip hop-esque "You," the sensual BDSM exploration of "Rope Burn," and the rock centered "What About," where Janet confronts her abusive significant other. The Velvet Rope reveals an ambitious range of topics including domestic violence, queerness, self loathing, depression, loss, masturbation and self acceptance. From the well-placed Joni Mitchell and War samples and the dance groovy Rod Stewart cover, to the electric violins, taboo interludes and intimate lyrical confessions accompanying Janet’s gorgeously stacked harmonies and disarmingly versatile vocals, The Velvet Rope masterfully shifts between genres and soundscapes while maintaining a cohesively engaging listening experience.
On the occasion of the album’s 20th anniversary, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jimmy Jam, Janet’s longtime collaborator and ½ of the two-man production powerhouse of Jam and Lewis, about the enduring appeal of The Velvet Rope, Janet's creative and emotional state at the time, and the way the public received her most provocative musical statement.
There's such a contrast in mood from 1993s janet. to The Velvet Rope. We see Janet foray into darker and more introspective material. How was the preparation different between the two albums?
Jimmy Jam: The biggest difference creatively [was], on all the albums up to that point, the tracks came before the lyrics. For the most part, the tracks drove us lyrically. With The Velvet Rope, she already did extensive lyrics, so for the first time, creation was around existing lyrics.
In previous interviews, Janet discussed how difficult the recording process was for her at times because the subject matter was so personal. She commented that she’d leave for weeks at a time between recordings—were there any particular songs that you were unsure she’d be able to finish?
JJ: No, I never sensed that, but we’ve always been very sensitive. When you’re creating, it’s not always automatic. Many days in the studios were just days of talking and listening to music that had nothing to do with our music. Sometimes she’d say she wasn’t coming in. We treated it much more as a creative thing than an emotional process, but we knew there was a lot of emotion involved. Literally she’d sometimes say that she just was not coming in, so we’d create new tracks or tweak something or comp a vocal. We always had things to do even when she didn’t come in and we’d pick up where we left off.
Were there any times that you guys and Janet didn’t see eye-to-eye about the album’s creative direction?
JJ: I don’t recall us ever having any sort of real disagreements. I don’t remember anything like that on this album, the creative process was the most heightened.There was a sense of what I guess you can call urgency, just in that she’d been living with these thoughts for quite a while. She wanted to get them off her chest. That was the sense of heightened creativity. It was a very inspiring process, a project where I know, as a producer...I felt very alive. We were all excited. I just knew it was gonna be cool. Janet trusts you in the process, and she’s always been willing to try our ideas. Joni Mitchell samples, electric violins, whatever—she’s up for anything. As a producer, I can tell you there’s no better feeling than knowing you can bring any idea to the table, and we were the same for her.
Interludes like "Speaker Phone" treated listeners to these audio windows that seem like her very personal convos with friends.
JJ: We would always talk about what we were trying to achieve. These were albums, real albums—there had to be segues from one stage to the next. There had to be a continuous listening experience. The interludes would sometimes be outtakes, which I always enjoyed making with her. She has that amazing personality in the studio, and she’s very funny and very much still a kid. I wanted fans and listeners to hear what I got to hear when working with her—even on heavy subjects, we still enjoyed ourselves.
"Speaker Phone" went down exactly the way it sounded. We just took a phone in the studio, put a mic to it and she just had a conversation with her friend. We edited a little bit, but that was a real conversation.
When the album was released in 1997, the chatter about the sales numbers was that they were soft and not up to Janet’s standards. Did that kind of thing bother or annoy her? And do you think it’s initial reception on the pop charts was because of it’s more experimental and R&B leanings?
JJ: I don’t think it [bothered her], she was really happy with the album and what we made, and we knew that we were pushing the envelope. We knew for her, she thinks of herself as an R&B artist first. The fact that her songs crossed over worldwide is not for trying, she has a pop sensibility to her—like Terry [Lewis] and I do. We grew up in Minnesota listening to pop radio. But at the end of the day, she’s an R&B artist. When we did the "Control" record [in 1986] we were trying to do the funkiest song we could do. But the crossover wasn’t purposeful. When we decided "Got 'Til Its Gone" was gonna be the 1st single, we knew there would be challenges at radio. I think we were surprised pop radio shunned the record.
But then again, her visuals were...I guess you can say more afrocentric and authentic, but if it was a shinier, typical pop video, I think they would have embraced it more. I think pop radio...saw the visuals and said "this record is not for us," and they didn’t play it. Then we put out "Together Again" and obviously pop radio embraced it. I don’t think pop radio didn’t like it, they just thought this "wasn’t for us." With [third single] "I Get Lonely," we finally got both sides on the same page—pop and urban radio.
Is there any song on the album you feel is underrated or doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in all these The Velvet Rope retrospectives?
JJ: I don’t think any of the songs are particularly underrated. But one of my fave records Is "Empty." That record is particularly interesting because you hear that dial-up sound in the beginning and it’s a sound most are unfamiliar with these days. She was so ahead of her time in discussing the internet and how it influences our lives. I think "Free Xone" was sonically very different, in that she put relationships of all kinds in the forefront of what she’s doing. For a lot of people it was very liberating, which I thought was cool.
I hadn’t revisited the record for a while, revisiting it for the anniversary made me realize how well it’s held up. Not to discount Rhythm Nation—it's one of the best albums I’ve ever done—but it’s a much neater package. The Velvet Rope, however, was a challenging record. It stands the test of time. It’s interesting seeing her in concert now, I don’t think you can look at any pop star’s career, and they don’t have throwaway songs that they hate performing. But Janet doesn’t have that problem, all her songs are relevant and great songs. The true greatness of The Velvet Rope is that it fits neatly into her legacy.
Why do you think this album still resonates so much with younger audiences today? How do you think it influenced today’s pop and R&B artists?
JJ: It’s hard to tell. I know it’s been influential; the biggest compliments I get—whether it’s Kendrick [Lamar], Maxwell, or Chance The Rapper—they’ll single out certain moments in her career, and say how much it’s impacted them. Questlove—who is the ultimate taste-maker to me—we’ve had long convos about that record in particular. Coming off of janet., which was obviously the most successful album, but much more commercial—The Velvet Rope was lyrically challenging, in that it was a superstar saying you can have everything and still be sad. You’re still trying to define success while successful. You know Janet always took about 3 or 4 years between each album. She had a chance to live and reflect about what she wanted to say next. Terry always says "What comes from the heart reaches the heart." The Velvet Rope came from her heart and what she was thinking, and it touched so many lives. It had all these rock, hip-hop, dance, retro and Motown influences. I just think it seems to be a very memorable album. Influential for people who are interested in breaking the boundaries, who are there to challenge us and are interested in breaking barriers.
Because this was her most personal album, and it was so deeply revealing, was Janet nervous about releasing it and how it would be received?
JJ: My recollection is that she couldn’t wait for it to come out. Literally, we would make a song and she couldn’t wait for people to hear it. I never got the sense that she felt she was alone in this. She knew that other people were going through this, and needed to hear it. She didn’t put the importance on herself. It’s very hard for her to admit she likes anything about herself; she’s always praising and crediting the people around her—me and Terry, her dancers, her team. If I say to Janet "This vocal sounds great" she goes, "Oh ok, I guess its good then."
The fans' acceptance of it, and their embracing of it, is what she’s very pleased with, and she should be. Virgin Records, who they were at that time, did not challenge us about this record. They loved the record. They knew it was gonna be tough to get, but they really championed it. We didn’t get any pushback from the label or anything, they were 100% with it. When pop radio didn’t jump on it, they knew we’d get the next one. I also remember Roger Davies—who was her manager at the time—was the perfect manager. He’s managed women like Tina Turner, Cher, Sade and P!nk. These are career artists. Having that experience to know to stay the course, to say "we’re fine here, we’re good." He was very instrumental; he had been there and done that. Once you’ve managed someone like Tina Turner, you’ve experienced all of that before. We knew to stay the course. I think Roger did an amazing job and it’s important I give him a shout-out on that.
You make a record that speaks to you, you had Janet, [her then-husband] René [Elizondo] myself and Terry, and then you have Roger Davies who was there at the end. We all said said "I love this record." At the end of the day, we just hoped that everyone agreed with us. With The Velvet Rope, sometimes it’s the 1st listen, sometimes it’s the 2nd listen, but ultimately you hope people love it, too.
Watch Janet Jackson's Video for "Together Again":
Watch Janet Jackson's Live Performance of "What About" From the 1998 VH1 Fashion Awards: