“Oooooooh…. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I see that?” Janet Jackson asks as I hold up the iconic cover of her 1993 album, janet., the world-shaking affirmation of sexuality that upended her public persona. “She was trying to come out of that shell, and be accepting of herself and of who she was physically,” she says after reflecting for a beat.
Janet Damita Jo Jackson is indulging me in a game. I’ve put all of her album art in a tote, and now I’m getting her quick read on the women before her. She has no idea which cover I’ll grab next—and nor do I—and the grin that stretches those famous high cheekbones of hers is both mischievous and suspicious. I draw the next album, Discipline. “Just a hot mess,” Jackson says, wrinkling her nose for dramatic effect. “I’m joking, but truly, what really comes to mind when I look at that is Jermaine [Dupri].” I draw a few more. Control. “Innocence.” All for You. “Someone who was happy—and ready to move on.” 20 Y.O. “A tough time, a tough period in my life,” she says, her voice fading away.
Jackson is curled up in a leather armchair inside a private lounge at Heathrow Airport, in London, the city where she’s raising her 5-year-old son, Eissa. She’s dressed in baggy black sweats, her waist-length locs are pulled into a sleek high bun, and she’s serene and measured throughout our hour-long conversation. Just a few days before her fifty-sixth birthday, she’s flying to Las Vegas to honor her friend Mary J. Blige at the Billboard Music Awards.
A risk-taking innovator who revolutionized Black cultural expression in the 1980s and broke barriers for women in music, Jackson is a capital “S” Superstar. A global icon and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer with incomparable impact, she’s built musical universes that centered pleasure, personal agency, self-esteem, spirituality, identity, race and social justice. She’s been a singular force for close to four decades—but she is also an enigma. We see her, we hear her, we feel her, but we don’t truly know her.
She’s kept us at arm’s length by design. Jackson’s fame and ancestry reside in such a rarefied space that it feels silly to offer a sizzle reel of the triumphs, scandals, rumors and lore that have shaped our perception of her. The ways in which we’ve thought or talked about Jackson’s career—and her interior life—have largely been informed by the half-century of mythology surrounding her family. But lately we’ve been reconsidering her legacy: What it must have cost her to break ground as a Black woman in America. What she endured as the youngest in a family as scrutinized and idolized as hers.
Our longing for Jackson to lift the veil and let us in has never faded. It’s why her four-hour, self-titled documentary, which debuted in January, brought in record views. The project was her way of reclaiming a narrative lost to gossip, cultural critique, media coverage and her own preference for keeping the world at bay. It was also her way of telling us what she wanted to—on her terms.
There’s more to be said, of course. There’s always more to be said when it comes to Jackson. And we know her at least well enough to know that anything more she chooses to share will make it into her music—not that she’s entirely ready to tell us when to expect it. Still, for the next hour with ESSENCE, she drops a couple of unexpected gems. Listen in.
Did the documentary help you better understand anything about your past selves?
I realized certain patterns I had in my personal life, in my career. Certain things I never thought about. Five years is a good amount of time to have someone follow you around like that.
I imagine making the documentary woke up a lot in you. How did you process that? Have you processed that?
For me, it was what it was—whether you liked it or not. It’s my life story and my family. It was important for me to do it, because I had the opportunity to tell my story and not have someone tell it for me. I know I got it right. I was being completely honest—but still, even in that honesty, my mother could have called and said, “Oh, baby, I didn’t like this part.” And that was the nervous part, because you never want to disappoint, you know?
And when she called? Ooooh. She said, “Baby, I saw your documentary. I loved every minute of it.” That was everything for me, right there.
You’re back on stage and performing live at ESSENCE Festival of Culture this year—but how are things going in the studio? Where are you with new music?
It’s so funny because I see the fans asking, “When are we going to get Black Diamond?” “Will you please release?” Sometimes things happen that you don’t expect to happen, and you have to figure things out—or you’re in a space in your life when you have to take a step back and take a break for a minute. Even though it’s something that I absolutely love, it still is my work, my job. There will be music at some point. Exactly when? I can’t say just yet, but there will be. I love it too much not to do it. This is all I know. There’s so much that I want to do—but my number one job is being a mama.
I want to go back to 1986 to Control—and how it pioneered New Jack Swing. As the album came together, was there a moment when either you or Jimmy Jam or Terry Lewis thought the music was breaking ground?
I can honestly say, no. It was going in and just creating. Being thankful and excited about creating. Ideas flowing left and right. I remember Jimmy telling me something Teddy [Riley] had mentioned, that when he heard “Alright” it gave him this spark—this idea of this New Jack Swing. But it was never like, “Oh, this is going to be a game-changer.” I liked doing things in different registers, not always singing in the same key. Even if it’s uncomfortable, let’s try other stuff.
Do you feel you’ve got your proper due as a songwriter and producer, particularly when it comes to innovating R&B?
I’ve heard Jimmy and Terry tell me we haven’t. I’ve heard fans tell me we -haven’t. Other artists have said the same thing. That never crossed my mind. That’s not important to me, whether I did or didn’t, to be quite honest. It’s really the body of music touching people and how it impacts their lives that matters to me. It’s not the accolades. I honestly don’t think about that stuff.
What felt particularly revelatory about the documentary was getting a glimpse of how you reacted to your ascent in the industry. Has your idea of success evolved from when you were just starting out?
I’ve never been that person to have my awards on display. There’s nothing wrong with it, that’s just not me. Being able to wake up and see my baby another day. The space I might be in at that moment within my soul. What I’ve accomplished within myself. How far I’ve come from that child there to the woman that I am today. That’s success. If you came to my home, you would never know—if you did not know who I was—that I am an entertainer. I don’t have one award on my wall.
So where are all of your awards?
At a warehouse. I’m just saving them for my baby, whatever he wants to do with them. I remember when Jermaine and I were together, he said to me, “Where are your Grammys? Why don’t you have your Grammys?” So I had them brought over, because he wanted them out, so that’s what I did. Just the Grammys, nothing else. After we went our separate ways, they went back in the warehouse and haven’t come out since.
Do you feel like you have an album that is underrated?
Underrated? I don’t know if I can say underrated. With The Velvet Rope, a lot of people were expecting something that was more up. Fun and happy. I remember driving on the freeway and this car honked. It was a girl, and I looked over and she pulled up her CD and it was The Velvet Rope. I just smiled and said, “Thank you.” I appreciated her acknowledging the fact that she had it—and feeling that she understood it, she got it and it spoke to her.
It’s such a freeing album to listen to.
I think so too, but people didn’t get that as I was hoping they would, because they just wanted a certain part of me—or I should say, the other me.
What is something that people still get wrong, still don’t understand about you?
Oh, gosh. Oh, that’s a good one. When it comes to my personal life, I think mistaking my kindness for weakness. When it comes to my professional life, I would say it would have to be not liking to hear the word “no.” Especially being a woman, and someone telling you, “No, you can’t because…”
I started our conversation by asking you to reflect very quickly on some album covers and who you were then. What’s the first thing that comes to mind about the woman sitting in front of me right now?
Sometimes, when you see what’s in front of you and you think one thing may be happening, something totally different is going on behind the scenes. I know that’s so vague. I know. I’m not saying that what you’re seeing now is not me—but you never know what’s going on in the person’s mind.
Gerrick D. Kennedy (@gerrickkennedy) is a cultural critic and author based in Los Angeles.
Read the full cover story in the July/August 2022 issue of ESSENCE on newsstands June 28.
Fashion In Order Of Appearance:
Jackson wearing a Amiri blazer, amiri.com, WNU shirt, withnothingunderneath.com, MM6 Maison Margiela sweater, maisonmargiela.com, Balenciaga @ End Clothing track pants, endclothing.com and Balenciaga boots, Balenciaga.com.
Jackson wearing a Diesel coat and jeans, diesel.com, Uniqlo T-shirt, uniqlo.com, Patcharavipa rings, patcharavipa.com and Eera earrings, stylist’s own.
Jackson wearing a Esaú Yori coat, esauyori.com, Wolford top, wolfordshop.com, Greg Lauren trousers, greglauren.com
and Loewe boots, loewe.com.
Jackson wearing an Issey Miyake Pleats Please hat and top, isseymiyake.com, and Esaú Yori blazer, esauyori.com.
Photographer: Yu Tsai @yutsai88
Fashion: Georgia Medley @ The Only Agency @georgiamedley @theonly.agency
Hair: Larry Sims @ Forward Artists for Flawless @larryjarahsims, @forwardartists
Makeup: Preston Meneses @prestonmakeup
Props: Jemima Hetherington @jimmy_frank
Videographer and Editor: Giancarlo Decastro
SVP, Creative Corey Stokes @coreytstokes
Senior Creative Director: Ally Brown @AllyBees
Creative Director: Nia Lawrence @nialawrence_nyc
Senior Entertainment Editor: Brande Victorian @Be_vic
Style & Beauty Editor: Blake Newby @blakelawren
Graphic & Motion Designer: Imani Nuñez@profoundly_imani
Social Media Director: Charisma DeBerry @charismatessa
Supervising Video Producer: Yazmin Ramos @ @jazzolina