That night, as I view old videos from her 1986 breakthrough album, Control, Janet's determination is clear, her dancing razor sharp, though her chubbiness makes her cute rather than sexy, girlish rather than womanly. In Rhythm Nation 1814, her multiplatinum post-Control statement, she's a soldier in an army of reformers, covered from head to foot in a dark, buttoned-to-the-neck uniform. There are a couple of love songs, but the record centers on social ills. Her singing is stronger – especially her self-styled harmonies, her way of shadowing herself. Back in 1989, when I compared Rhythm Nation to What's Going On, some soul-music purists chided me, but I like the analogy. Just as Gaye moved from What's Going On to Let's Get It On, from the austere to the ecstatic, Janet, every bit as serious-minded as Marvin, moved from Rhythm Nation to janet., her statement of sexual liberation. For Jackson, there has been a stop in between, Poetic Justice, a film whose heat emanates almost entirely from libidinous frustration. Written and directed by John Singleton, who also did Boyz n the Hood, the movie is a story of sexual suppression, and a few days later, sitting on the balcony outside Janet's cozy beach house, I see it as a way of directing our dialogue back to sex.
Janet's wearing a long, linen earth-toned dress, sleeveless and scooped low in front. No shoes, no makeup, no jewelry. It's an ocean-fresh sea-breeze-in-your-face morning. She looks even better than she did in yesterday's video gear. Natural. Open. The orange juice is freshly squeezed, the wheat bread unbuttered. Sunshine dances over the blue sea, her voice barely audible above the sounds of crashing surf and squawking gulls.
"I trust John Singleton," she says about the film's director. "He's one of the few people out here who's absolutely true to his art. He showed me the script of Poetic Justice, and I immediately loved it. Later, he said the part of Justice was written with me in mind, and I was flattered. I was warned by powerful forces in Hollywood that an all-black movie was the wrong move. Conventional wisdom said I should make a musical. Go for the mainstream white market. Play it safe. John had the same feelings I did – do something different. Then when I accepted the role, other voices started asking, 'How can a rich girl from the burbs play a homegirl from the hood?' My reaction was 'Well, watch me.' Besides, isn't acting about entering the soul of someone else?"
When Janet Jackson speaks to you, she often employs the direct address, adding intimacy to the conversation. She starts her sentences by invoking your name. When I ask her to talk more about the sexual content of Poetic Justice and its influence on her new album, she replies: "David, Justice is real to me. I feel her pain. And, no, she's not ready for sex, not in the time frame of this movie. She's lost too much. And trusts too little. John had originally written in some lovemaking scenes between me and Tupac Shakar, and I was willing to get under the sheets with him. I was not willing, though, to show my short and curlies. None of that happened, not even the lovemaking scene, because the story just wouldn't allow it. The story is really about two people – both wounded by tragedy – learning to touch and be touched all over again. John could have heated up the thing with some steamy bumping, but he was more interested in incorporating the poetry of Maya Angelou. Rather than sensationalize, he wanted to give the work substance.
"When the movie was complete," she continues, sipping her orange juice, "I suppose I did want to shed some of Justice's physical frustration. Rhythm Nation was a heavy record, and Poetic Justice was a heavy movie. I wanted to do something lighter but also daring. Mostly, though, I wanted to do something that corresponded to my life. My concepts are never bright ideas; they're never notions I think will sell or be trendy or attract new fans. I don't think that way. All I can do is sing from my life. When I wrote the album, I was still in a poetic frame of mind, inspired by Maya's beautiful language. You can hear that inspiration on the interludes and especially on the song 'New Agenda' This time I felt much freer expressing myself."
Her first album under a new, highly publicized $30 million deal with Virgin Records, janet., is very Janet, undoubtedly the most Janet of any Janet record to date. She's all over the project – physically, emotionally, vocally. These words come from "If": "Take your time, we've got all night/You on the rise as you're touchin' my thighs/And let me know what you like/If you like, I'll go down/Da down down down/Da down down down." I ask if she's comfortable singing such suggestive lyrics.
"I should be," she says confidently. "I wrote them. All my records are personal, and janet. is the most personal of them all. That's why this time around it was important for me to write all the lyrics and half of the melodies."
The results are both subtle and bold. She took chances. She asked Kathleen Battle and Public Enemy's Chuck D to contribute – an opera diva and a hardcore rapper, two artists one would not associate with Janet – and somehow pulled it off. Beyond Jam and Lewis, there's now a recognizable Janet Jackson production style that's gutsy and, in some cases, even eccentric. I'm interested, for example, in her inclusion of the album's only cover tune, "What'll I Do," a Steve Cropper song from the '60s.
"I got hold of the Stax material," Janet explains, referring to the recent, exhaustive nine-CD box of Stax-Volt singles from 1959-1968. "I listened to it for days, knowing this was a gold mine of some of the smoothest soul songs of all time. I ran across a song I fell in love with and just had to record. It was called 'What'll I Do for Satisfaction,' sung by Johnny Daye, a huge talent. In fact, Otis Redding was getting ready to produce Johnny just before Otis died. I reworked the words, and Jellybean Johnson and I worked up the groove. It fit right in with my overall theme."
Which is . . . ?
"A woman who finally feels good enough about her sexuality," says Janet, "to demand a man's respect. It's insulting to be seen as some object; he must call her by name. It's not a brazen demand – I didn't want to be obnoxious – but I wanted to be clear. Women want satisfaction. And so do men. But to get it, you must ask for it. Know what you need. Say what you want. Sexual communication is the name of the game. Intimacy."
The man most intimate with Janet Jackson is Rene Elizondo. He's been her boyfriend for years now and also her chief creative cohort. She calls him her soul mate. As we've been talking, Rene's been riding the waves on a yellow kayak. Fresh from the ocean, dripping wet, he pulls up a chair and jumps into the conversation. He's 30, wiry, bright and charismatic – smooth without being slick, handsome in a low-key way. His demeanor bespeaks a certain Latin aristocracy, even though in Poetic Justice he plays the bit part of a hotheaded Hispanic postal worker. Rene's style is California cool: loose jeans, quiet golf shirts, nifty sunglasses.
In social situations with Janet, Rene plays the boisterous extrovert to her introvert, dominating the dinner-table conversation without displaying an overbearing ego. He also shares her sense of playfulness. There's an easy rapport between them. Brimming with ideas and passionately enthusiastic about Janet's creative capabilities, Rene is her staunchest booster. "Janet. is so hot," he says, "it should have come with a condom." A passionate film buff, he's the director of two janet. videos, "Again" and "That's the Way Love Goes."
"There was pressure to kick off the album with a more spectacular song," Janet says of "That's the Way Love Goes." "But I wanted to go the other way. I didn't want to break down the door, just slip in through the side. We thought this easy-to-get-with groove – real gentle but real sexy – would be a warm way of kicking things off. That's why Rene suggested I surround myself with the kids in the dance troupe and let me relax, just be myself."
Tish Oliver comes running out to the patio to wish everyone good morning. She's one of the Kids, a dancer who, at age 21, has become something of a baby sister to Janet, who is herself the baby of a nine-sibling family. Janet thrives on being around lots of friends. Members of her dance troupe, who are often domiciled in one of her two Los Angeles houses, remind her of her youth, when kids were everywhere. Tish is irrepressible, loose-limbed, bouncing off the walls with happy energy. She's the one whom Janet castigates at the end of the "That's the Way Love Goes" video for looking at the camera. She's from South Central, and this morning, Janet is driving her over to the junior college, where Tish is taking an English course.
Afterward, loyal chum Janet is having lunch with two longtime pals from her school days. She describes one as "a lovable Jewish American Princess" and the other as "a sista who knew more about sex education than the sex-education teacher." I suggest that the subject of Janet's sexual education needs to be further explored. She smiles and asks me to meet her in a couple of days. "We'll take a little trip together" is all she says.
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