Janet Jackson Talks New Music, Legendary Career, New Artists She Enjoys & More For ‘Billboard Magazine’ Cover Ahead of Highly Anticipated ICON Award Performance [Photos/Video]

Posted May 17, 2018

This Sunday, Janet Jackson will grace the 2018 Billboard Music Awards for her first televised performance in over nine years, as she takes to the stage to receive the ICON Award and will also perform.

Ahead of that, the Queen of Pop is gracing the cover of Billboard Magazine, to dish on motherhood, music, her legendary career and more. Get into the cover shot below and some excerpts below. 

Eleven studio albums: six in the 20th century, five in the 21st and all beginning at age 16. Let’s go back to the very beginning, when your first two records — 1982’s Janet Jackson and 1984’s Dream Street — were released.
Excitement was in the air. Music was always my heart, and now I was getting to sing my heart out. The songs were good, but they weren’t me. [She only began co-writing most of her songs on Control.] That was a little confusing. I knew I had something to say, I knew I had to assert myself. I also knew I had to go through the painful process of what my brothers had gone through. I had to thank my father for his help and then move on. I had to assert myself.

And take control.
Control was undoubtedly the break-through. But I think the concept is sometimes misunderstood. I’m a believer. I know that God has absolute control. I’ve never wavered in that belief. I don’t mean I don’t get controlling — most artists do. But I also know that turning myself into a control freak goes against my character. I’m much more a collaborator than a controller. So I saw control, even as a 20-year-old, in modest and limited ways. For example, I agreed to be produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. That was critical because they were not controlling. They let me be me. They encouraged me to tell my story, express my attitudes and step forward with my convictions. They encouraged me to write. I also had the control to select choreographers and video directors who could channel — and help me shape — my own dance moves, turning them into visual poetry. I didn’t control those wonderfully creative people, and they didn’t control me. It was more about molding fruitful partnerships. And based on those partnerships and the success of Control, I could move on and assert myself even more boldly.

The 21st century starts off with two albums — 2001’s All for You and 2004’s Damita Jo — where it feels like you’ve made a conscious decision to lighten up.
I did. I felt like I was taking myself a little too seriously. Art is serious stuff, but when an artist — or least an artist like me — loses her sense of humor or her feeling for pure fun, something goes missing. Every once in a great while, I have to go back and bring out that little girl inside of me who can simply blow off steam and try to spread joy. As someone who has battled depression, that’s not only important, it’s vital. Sometimes purely happy music is the best medicine I can ingest.

Missy Elliott, an incredible artist who has been there for me as a loyal friend and strong sista, did a fabulous remix on “Son of a Gun” from All for You, leading to our video together. That was big fun. We got together again on “The I” from [2008’s] Discipline, when I was working with Rodney Jerkins and Jermaine Dupri. I also loved collaborating with Kanye West on “My Baby” from Damita Jo. This was 2004, College Dropout time, when the world was just recognizing his talent.

Jumping ahead a few years, I recall witnessing an especially difficult moment in your life: You were recording at Rodney Jerkins’ studio in L.A. — a year after your brother had passed [in 2009] — and you happened to glance at a magazine with a picture of Michael and said, “I still can’t believe it.”
That brings up a precious memory. It happened in the early ’80s. I was 16 and in between my first two records. Michael was recording [1982’s] Thriller. He invited me to the studio where he was about to sing “P.Y.T.” and asked me to help out on background vocals. Since we had been singing together forever, I knew it’d be easy. I jumped at the chance. I loved being one of the P.Y.T.’s and was especially proud — I hope this doesn’t sound like bragging — that when the record was mixed, my single background voice was the one featured. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel.

On your most recent album, 2015’s Unbreakable, “No Sleeep” was the single. It has a romantic tinge, but I’m wondering whether the idea came about because, as a new mom, a waking infant kept you up all night.
[Laughs.] I wrote that story over Jimmy and Terry’s track before the baby was born! So obviously, it wasn’t anything I was going through. You could say, though, that I might have been anticipating sleepless nights. I’d also add that sleepless nights, no matter how tiring, are some of the times that I do my best writing.

Talk about the music you’re writing now.
I wish I could. I’m not trying to avoid the question and be secretive, but the truth is that I don’t try to analyze the creative process while it’s still ongoing. I’m very intuitive about writing. Anything can inspire me. This morning, I saw this lovely elderly Japanese woman walking down the streets of Hollywood wearing an adorable bonnet with bright red flowers. She might be a song. I remembered an especially painful chapter in my early life last night before going to bed. That might be a song. I woke up this morning and heard a bird chirping in a rhythm that captivated my heart. Maybe that will turn into a new groove. Like everyone else, my feelings are fluid. My ideas are fleeting. I like to keep it that way. I can’t decide in advance what a song or an album concept will be. I have to let those songs and concepts come to me rather than chase them down.

I’m glad I’m not methodical or self-conscious as a writer. It’s important that I maintain a let-it-happen-when-it-happens approach. I don’t want to strain or stress. I want to be a channel for whatever images and emotions are running through my imagination. Spontaneity is so important to me. It allows for surprise, and, for me, surprise is what breaks up the boredom of daily life. When I finally get to the music that genuinely expresses what I’m experiencing in the moment, I feel free. Music does that for me. Its healing properties are extraordinary.

So much of your music over these past four decades has been about putting out positive messages, whether personal or societal. Given today’s state of the nation, are you discouraged?
No. I’m anxious. I’m angry. I’m certainly concerned, but when I hear new artists finding their voices, just as I found mine, I’m optimistic. Young artists are exhibiting more courage than ever. Music is more alive than ever. And more relevant. We women artists — and women in general — are saying we will not be controlled, manipulated or abused. We’re determined not to fall back to those days of emotional and even physical enslavement. It’s a blessing to be alive today and join in the fight for equality among all human beings.

You mentioned younger artists. Which ones impress you the most?
Daniel Caesar is proving that romantic R&B is alive and well. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are proving that brilliantly original storytelling is one of hip-hop’s great gifts to world culture. SZA is proving that young women still possess extraordinary vocal skills and style.

I also have a special place in my heart for Bruno Mars. Bruno was really the first music my son responded to. During and after his birth, I comforted myself with Brazilian jazz, music that always relaxes me. Then when the baby began crawling, Bruno was breaking out big and on the radio all the time. That delighted both of us. Bruno is a throwback to the days when the greatest artists could do it all: write, sing, dance, produce.

So here you are, a single mom of 52, about to run into the studio, make new music, learn new dance moves and then embark on a grueling tour. What is the source of your drive?
The drive is in my DNA. I couldn’t lose it if I wanted to, and I don’t. Motivation is something I treasure. Besides, for all its difficulties, this is the life I love. I’m surrounded with a team of dancers, singers and musicians I love. I’m supported by fans that have stuck by me through thick and thin. They mean the world to me. Now more than ever, performing, whether in the studio or onstage, brings me a satisfaction I find nowhere else.

Like millions of other women, I’ve struggled with low self-esteem my whole life. I’m doing better in that regard. My inclination toward harsh self-criticism and even self-negation has dramatically eased up. I believe in all the different methods of help — smart psychology, vigorous exercise and sincere spirituality.

God is the greatest healer of all and the most potent force in the universe. In my world, though, God is so often expressed through music, and it’s music that beats back the negative forces. It’s music that drowns out those voices that say I’m not enough. It’s music, and its divine source, that gifts me with the knowledge that harmony is still possible.

And while we’re talking about positivity, let me also say that my son, even in his short 17 months on the planet, has showed me that love, no matter how deeply you believe you have experienced that emotion, can always go deeper. Love is limitless. And for someone like me, raised in show business where self-concern is always a priority, how fortunate I am now to be concerned, first and foremost, with the welfare of someone else. Day after day and night after night, holding my baby in my arms, I am at peace. I am blessed. I feel bliss. In those moments, all is right with the world.

You can view the full spread and full interview HERE.

A post shared by Janet Jackson (@janetjackson) on

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