Sound shifting ‘janet.’ is still hot

I was too young to understand the lyrics of That’s the Way Love Goes when it enjoyed video rotation on the Friday night music show Studio Mix.

Most millennials have their older siblings or cousins to thank for their Nineties R&B nostalgia. The likes of the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff’s Boom Shake Shake the Room, TLC’s Creep, Montell Jordan’s This Is How We Do It, Kris Kros’s Jump Jump, and Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time form part of the YouTube archive, which assists us to fully appreciate the value of this music as it relates to the coming of age of black people the world over.

It is not surprising then that the likes of Bruno Mars are reaching back to this era. CCV TV (now SABC  1) connected us to African-American culture at a time when South Africa was reintegrating into the rest of the world after almost 30 years of cultural isolation.

Coined by Barry Michael Cooper in 1988 and perfected by super-producer Teddy Riley, new jack swing is the subgenre that focuses Jackson’s fifth studio album janet., which was released on May 18 1993 by Virgin Records. New jack swing was more than just a musical link between R&B and hip-hop. Its effect soon trickled through to other forms of popular culture. Living Color launched the careers of Jennifer Lopez (who makes a cameo in the video for That’s the Way Love Goes), Jim Carrey and Jamie Foxx. The syndicated sitcom Living Single, which premiered on August 22 1993, and the John Singleton-directed Poetic Justice, which premiered on July 24 1993, starring Jackson opposite hip-hop veteran Tupac Shakur, are but a few examples of the reach this subgenre had.

It is safe to argue that the bold colours and the positive energy characterised by new jack swing influenced the set of our very own Jam Alley as well as the style of one of its hosts, the legendary Vinolia “V-Mash” Mashego.

Jackson’s 1993 offering was so well received that on an episode of MTV Cribs, Virgin chief executive Richard Branson credited janet. as the album that built his lavish Necker Island mansion. Developed in Harlem in the mid-1980s, this sound, typified by the loud smack of the snare drum over a basic kick sequence of the bass drum, was crucial in breathing new life into Jackson’s discography.

Her career truly needed a breath of fresh air after underwhelming works like Dream Street. Though Control (1986) marked a break from the creative guidance of her manager father, Joseph, and Rhythm Nation (1989) marked a turn toward the political, janet. turned inward.

Dropping her surname for her self-titled Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis co-produced fifth studio album signified a further break from being perceived as merely the baby of music’s most famous family — a family known for its Jehovah’s Witness conservativism. Jackson introduces us to a multilayered Janet, one comfortable and at ease with herself.

The Patrick Demarchelier-photographed album cover of Jackson with arms up and folded behind her head, with her breasts cupped by then-husband Rene Elizondo, sets the tone for the feel of the album. By the time of the album’s release, the lead single, That’s the Way Love Goes, whose smooth jazz register further marked a break from Jackson’s up-tempo lead singles, she was ready to show just how much she was in love. The shift would pay off and the single, which dropped on April 20 1993, spent eight weeks on the charts, matching Mariah Carey’s Dreamlover (which also turns 25 this year) for longevity on the charts.

But over and above the themes explored in the album, I see janet. as a triumph of experimentation. A sonically superb body of work, which includes samples from James Brown and The Supremes, the album brought together almost every genre under the sun. This is probably why it remains as definitive as it was when it first dropped to such an extent that one is likely to hear the smooth sounds of Kirk Whalum’s cover of That’s the Way Love Goes floating out of the speakers of the The Orbit in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Jackson’s deliberateness in her collaboration choices gave us an unlikely pairing in the form of a feature by opera singer Kathleen Battle for This Time, which can be described as a hip-hop R&B aria sung cabaletta for dramatic contrapuntal effect. One of the first black women opera singers, Battle, like Leontyne Price, are pretty much the reason we have the likes of Pretty Yende tearing up the opera scene and redefining the face and colour of classical music.

Hip-hop powerhouses MC Lyte and Chuck D as features in You Want This and New Agenda respectively demonstrate that men and women lyricists can churn out equally forceful hits, confirming at a time when it was so important to emphasise this Queen Latifah’s argument in the hit Ladies First, featuring British rapper Monie Love: I break into a lyrical freestyle/ Grab the mic, look into the crowd and see smiles/ Cause they see a woman standing up on her two/ Sloppy slouching is something I won’t do/ Some think that we can’t flow/ Stereotypes they got to go.

The exhibitionist sexual themes in Throb, The Body That Loves You and Any Time Any Place do more for intimacy and pleasure than the shock-value work that artists, including Madonna, were doing at the time. Artists such as Jackson, who were interested in inserting the “joy of sex” (as she put it in her 1993 Rolling Stone magazine interview) into their art was important in reconciling the black female body to pleasure in light of the racist Hottentot-Venusesque gaze that continues to persist in relation to black women’s sexual agency.

These particular songs are forerunners to the bodies of work an artist such as Janelle Monae is putting out sonically and visually. Visually, PYNK talks back to You Want This; lyrically, it talks back to Throb, with Monae building on the foundation by including trans and gender nonconforming identities. Kendrick Lamar’s Poetic Justice featuring Drake not only samples Any Time Any Place but also visually reaches back to the film in which she starred, for which Jackson wrote the soundtrack Again.

But it is not just “the sample” as evidenced by the continued tributes to Jackson’s work that have us constantly reminiscing about Nineties R&B. Teddy Riley’s move from New York to Virginia, where he would mentor the next generation of super-producers, namely Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (who formed the production duo The Neptunes), Timbaland and Missy Elliot, is the reason we have hits from artists such as Aaliyah, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Ciara, The Pussycat Dolls, Nelly Furtado, Tweet and Solange.

Jackson and Missy Elliott continue to collaborate. Had it not been for this era we would not have Kaytranada’s bottom-heavy remix of what was initially selected to be the lead single for the janet. album, If.

janet. went on to enjoy almost three years on the Billboard charts from June 1993 to March 1996. So it is not surprising that Jackson was honoured with the Billboard Icon award on the weekend that the album turned 25. This work defined an era that continues to echo personally, socially and politically. And it is likely to continue to offer a blueprint. 

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