The Number Ones

January 5, 1991

The Number Ones: Madonna’s “Justify My Love”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


“Madonna’s new video: Too hot for MTV!” Madonna’s single “Justify My Love” and its attention-grabbing music video both came out in November of 1990, and I must’ve read at least a dozen articles with some variation on that headline. I was 11 years old at the time, and mass-market publications — the daily newspaper that my parents got, the People issues in my orthodontist’s waiting room — were some of my main windows on the world. My family didn’t have cable, so I only had the vaguest idea about what wasn’t too hot for MTV. But I knew that “Justify My Love” crossed some invisible line that I could only contemplate. From what those mass-market publications told me, the “Justify My Love” video was a much bigger deal than the “Justify My Love” song.

In retrospect, the whole media shitstorm surrounding that “Justify My Love” video stands as a perfect little relic of how beautifully Madonna could manipulate the world when she was at her peak. By 1990, Madonna had been cranking out massive singles for years, but the press treated her more as outrageous provocateur than pop singer. (Really, much of Madonna’s genius was in realizing just how much overlap there was between those two occupations.) 1989’s “Like A Prayer” was a #1 hit and a genuinely brilliant artistic statement, and the song’s whole controversy-generating rollout — the video, the abandoned Pepsi ad campaign, the angry statements from church officials — seemed lab-designed to make as much media noise as possible. With “Justify My Love,” Madonna outdid herself.

The “Justify My Love” video is not porn. It’s art, and it’s sensation, but it’s also pretty hot. Madonna made the video with Jean-Baptiste Mondino, the French fashion photographer who’d previously done her clip for “Open Your Heart.” Mondino shot “Justify My Love” in grainy black-and-white, consciously evoking the style of French new wave art films. Supposedly, it’s specifically an homage to The Bay Of Angels, a 1963 movie that I’ve never seen.

As the “Justify My Love” video opens, Madonna, looking theatrically tired, hauls a comically huge suitcase down a hotel hallway. Tony Ward, the model who was dating Madonna at the time, appears out of somewhere, and they make out. All through the hotel, other people join in, flitting in and out of the frame. Many of those characters are outwardly queer. Some of them are playing around with S&M. Madonna makes out with a woman while Ward watches, and then that same woman — at least, I think it’s her — appears with a drawn-on mustache. We get a quick flash of dominatrix nipple. Everyone dizzily blurs into everyone else, and nobody seems to belong to any fixed gender, which seems to be the point. At the end, Madonna runs down the hallway cackling gleefully to herself, as if she’s escaping the orgy that she just incited — as if turning all these people on was just a prank for her.

The real prank was probably the video itself. When MTV announced that “Justify My Love” couldn’t play on the network, Madonna turned that refusal into a talking point. The “Justify My Love” video ended up debuting on Nightline, the late-night news show. In a Nightline interview, Madonna said that she submitted the video to MTV, the same way she submitted all of her videos to the channel: “I guess half of me thought that I was going to get away with it and that I was going to be able to convince them, and the other half thought, well, no. With the wave of censorship and the conservatism that is sort of sweeping over the nation, I thought that there was going to be a problem.”

In that same interview, Madonna said that MTV didn’t even ask for any cuts to the video; the network said that the “whole tone” was too much for them. Of course, the network did Madonna a favor. When MTV wouldn’t play it, Madonna sold the “Justify My Love” video as a ten-dollar VHS tape, and she moved a million copies of it. In that Nightline interview, Madonna claimed that this was never the blueprint: “It may seem like it was a publicity stunt, and actually, I was very lucky. But I must say, I did not plan on selling this video.” But when Nightline anchor Forrest Sawyer points out that Madonna stood to make more money this way, she smiled and said, “Yeah, so lucky me.”

I’m putting the whole saga of the “Justify My Love” video up front here because the video, more than the song, became the story. The banned-from-MTV furor became an essential piece of Madonna lore — one more time that Madonna made the entire media industrial complex serve her interests. In that story, the song itself is practically an afterthought — a soundtrack to the video. As a piece of music, though, “Justify My Love” occupies a fascinating place within Madonna’s whole career arc, and it foreshadows the next incarnation of her ever-shifting pop-star persona.

“Justify My Love” was one of two new songs added onto the end of The Immaculate Collection, the greatest-hits album that Madonna released near the end of 1990. In just about every sense, The Immaculate Collection is a best-case scenario for a greatest-hits album. Usually, those collections come out when artists have started to fade commercially or artistically, or they stretch the definition of what could justifiably be considered a hit. With Madonna, this was not the case. Madonna was only four proper albums deep into her career when she put The Immaculate Collection together, but the album is nothing but end-to-end bangers. It’s an ideal snapshot of a historic hot streak. (Great wordplay in that title, too.)

On The Immaculate Collection, Madonna’s “Vogue” producer Shep Pettibone used a new sound-processing system known as QSound to lightly remix the original singles, making them sound bigger and more cinematic, cutting a few of them down a little bit to make them fit or flow. The collection’s editing is merciless. Madonna couldn’t find room for all-time jams like “Burning Up” and “Dress You Up” and “Causing A Commotion.” She didn’t even leave space for “Who’s That Girl,” an honest-to-God #1 hit. Even without those songs, Madonna still had an hour-plus of pure pop gold, and she also had a couple of new singles to help sell the product. “Justify My Love” was one of those.

For “Justify My Love,” Madonna didn’t work with her regular collaborators like Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray. Instead, she went with a handsome new face who was just making a name for himself. Lenny Kravitz, the son of Jeffersons star Roxie Roker and TV producer Sy Kravitz, was gossip-column famous before his music career went anywhere. In 1987, a 23-year-old Kravitz, who called himself Romeo Blue at the time, married Lisa Bonet, the brain-meltingly beautiful Cosby Show star. The two of them eloped on Bonet’s 20th birthday in Las Vegas. A year later, Kravitz signed with Virgin and ditched the whole Romeo Blue persona. In 1989, Kravitz released Let Love Rule, a debut album full of starry-eyed soul-rock psychedelia.

Let Love Rule wasn’t a huge success or anything. It sold moderately well, eventually going gold, and its title track made a slight dent in the Hot 100, peaking at #89. But Kravitz was clearly a star on the rise, and it’s not that hard to see why Madonna might be interested in working with a ridiculously handsome young genre synthesist who could pull off a Dr. Seuss top hat without any evident irony. And Kravitz really was on his way to stardom. Later in 1991, Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over,” still the man’s highest-charting single, would peak at #2. (It’s a 5.)

Kravitz co-wrote “Justify My Love” with Ingrid Chavez, a Minneapolis-based poet who’d become a Prince protege. Prince cast Chavez as the “Spirit Child” voice on his Lovesexy album, and she also played his love interest in Prince’s 1990 cinematic flop Graffiti Bridge. A little while after “Justify My Love” topped the charts, Chavez released May 19, 1992, a Prince-produced album of spoken-word poetry over dance beats. A year later, Chavez married former Japan frontman David Sylvian; they were together for 12 years.

Chavez got together with Kravitz to write “Justify My Love” while she was filming Graffiti Bridge. Kravitz came up with the song’s title and, along with his uncredited co-producer André Betts, the backing track. Chavez later claimed that she wrote all the lyrics. The “Justify My Love” lyrics apparently came from a love letter that she’d written to Kravitz but never sent. Talking to Vibe years later, Chavez said, “André got a beat going. Lenny recorded a synth line, and then he asked me if I had something I wanted to say. I had a letter on me — my letters are like poems — and so I got on the mic and basically read the letter. One take, and the rest is history.”

It would be a while before we got an accurate historical record, though. When “Justify My Love” first came out, Chavez didn’t have songwriting credit. Afterward, she sued Kravitz. They settled out of court, and credit for Chavez was part of that deal. (Before the lawsuit, Madonna also got a songwriting credit. Chavez said that Madonna had only changed one line of the original lyrics.) In 1991, Kravitz told the Associated Press, “Ingrid had written some of the lyrics on the verses. For certain personal and professional reasons at the time, we agreed not to put her name on it. We signed a contract. She gets royalties. It became a big hit, and she tried to make like she did the whole thing.” For her part, Chavez told USA Today, “I agreed not to tell because he was afraid his wife would think we had a relationship going.” Kravitz and Bonet separated later in 1991.

Actually, though, the question of “Justify My Love” authorship is even more complicated. If the song’s beat sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve heard variations on that beat thousands of times. “Justify My Love” is built on the “Funky Drummer” drum break. “Funky Drummer” is an extended vamp of a single that James Brown released in 1970. “Funky Drummer” was long enough that it was split into two sides of a 45. The song isn’t really about anything. Like so many other James Brown tracks, it’s James Brown talking some slick shit over an unbelievably hard instrumental. The track gets its title from a nice little bit of business on the second side. Brown announces that he wants to “give the drummer some of this funky soul that we got here.” The rest of the band drops out for a few measures, and Brown’s drummer Clyde Stubblefield keeps going with the tumbling syncopated backbeat that he’s basically been playing for the entire track.

“Funky Drummer” wasn’t exactly a smash; it peaked at #51 on the Hot 100. (James Brown’s highest-charting single is 1965’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” which peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) Brown and Stubblefield couldn’t have had any idea what would happen with “Funky Drummer” a decade and a half later. In the mid-’80s, Stubblefield’s “Funky Drummer” break became a foundational hip-hop sample. In 1986 alone, looped-up versions of the “Funky Drummer” break powered classics like Eric B and Rakim’s “Eric B Is President,” Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx,” and Kool G Rap and DJ Polo’s “It’s A Demo.” Run-DMC, LL Cool J, De La Soul, and the Beastie Boys all rapped over the “Funky Drummer” beat. That drum break also crossed out of rap music and into pop. Fine Young Cannibals and Sinéad O’Connor both built songs on that break. George Michael used it twice on his Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 album, including on the single “Freedom ’90,” which was in the top 10 around the same time as “Justify My Love.” (“Freedom ’90” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.) At one point, James Brown himself even recorded over the “Funky Drummer” break.

Rap producers were competitive with the “Funky Drummer” break, with many of them working to see how they could twist those drums up into different shapes. Public Enemy were especially fond of that break. The used it on “Rebel Without A Pause” and “Fight The Power” and “Bring The Noise,” and they made it sound different each time. Public Enemy also used that beat on “Security Of The First World,” a brief instrumental interlude from their 1988 album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. When Lenny Kravitz and André Betts used the “Funky Drummer” break on “Justify My Love,” they didn’t find some new way to flip it. Instead, they sampled it straight from “Security Of The First World.” (Public Enemy’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “Give It Up,” peaked at #33.)

Public Enemy didn’t get any kind of credit on “Justify My Love.” How could they? They’d been using the James Brown sample in the first place. If anyone should’ve gotten credit, maybe it should’ve been Clyde Stubblefield, the guy who came up with that drum pattern in the first place. But Stubblefield didn’t have a writing credit on “Funky Drummer,” despite being the funky drummer of the title. The “Funky Drummer” break is inscribed on the soul of everyone who was a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but Stubblefield never really got to profit off of it. In any case, Public Enemy’s response to “Justify My Love” took another form. Young Black Teenagers, an all-white rap group who operated under the banner of Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee, released “To My Donna (Dial M For Madonna)” later in 1991, and they used that same beat. (Young Black Teenagers’ highest-charting single, 1992’s “Tap The Bottle,” peaked at #55.)

The “Funky Drummer” beat continued on after “Justify My Love,” and we’ll see it in this column again. People are still using that beat now. It’s part of the cultural landscape. On “Justify My Love,” that beat is a sort of smothered burble. Kravitz layers a softly droning keyboard over it, and Kravitz and Madonna both sing mostly-wordless backing vocals. “Justify My Love” is really only barely a song. It’s more a groove. The beat casts a spell, and Madonna leans into that. Madonna doesn’t do too much singing on “Justify My Love.” Instead, she murmurs come-ons: “Love me. That’s right. Love me.” She sounded a whole lot like the phone-sex ads that I saw on late-night TV around that same time.

In today’s parlance, “Justify My Love” is a vibe. The phrase “trip-hop” wouldn’t be invented for another three years, and future Madonna collaborators Massive Attack wouldn’t release their landmark debut Blue Lines until a few months after “Justify My Love” reached #1. But “Justify My Love” is essentially an early example of trip-hop. In fact, it’s almost certainly the most commercially successful trip-hop track ever recorded. Madonna deserves credit, then, for anticipating whole new trends before they even happened.

That said, “Justify My Love” is not one of the all-time great Madonna tracks. The track sets a mood, and it furthers the whole Madonna persona. As a soundtrack for the video, “Justify My Love” works. But beyond establishing that atmosphere, the song doesn’t really do much. Madonna’s best songs can blast oxygen into your lungs. “Justify My Love” never does that. Instead, it whispers and sways. There’s no real evidence that Madonna is a person capable of being embarrassed, so she was probably perfectly comfortable with muttering about making love in a train cross-country or not wanting to be your mother or sister. But I can be embarrassed, and “Justify My Love” gives me a slight dose of that inward-cringe feeling. One lyric, in particular, hasn’t held up all that well: “Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.” In the past 30 years, most of us have fortunately figured out that permission is actually quite important.

“Justify My Love” definitely helped sell the Madonna persona, and it probably helped sell copies of The Immaculate Collection, too. The compilation, promoted almost like a new album, peaked at #2, and it was triple-platinum by the time 1991 was over. The comp kept selling, too. In 2001, more than a decade after its release, The Immaculate Collection went diamond. The other new song at the end of The Immaculate Collection was the Shep Pettibone-produced “Rescue Me,” which also leaned hard into Madonna’s new sleepy-murmur vocal style and which peaked at #9. (It’s a 7.)

So “Justify My Love” was an unqualified success, but in retrospect, it might’ve marked the end of Madonna’s world-conquering imperial era. “Justify My Love” actively courted backlash without balancing the controversy with the outright brilliance of so many of Madonna’s earlier singles. She had reached dizzy new heights of dominance, but she’d also tried a whole lot of people’s patience. Culturally speaking, the gender-blurred eroticism of the “Justify My Love” video was far ahead of its time. The drive to constantly seize attention was not.

Maybe people started to get a little worn out after “Justify My Love,” or maybe Madonna’s ability to ride new waves started to flag. Madonna wasn’t anywhere near out of ideas yet, and she made many more hits in the decade after “Justify My Love”; we’ll see plenty more of her in this column. But the hits after “Justify My Love” didn’t arrive quite so reliably.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: On a 1991 episode of Saturday Night Live, a “Wayne’s World” sketch turned into a parody of the “Justify My Love” video, and Madonna herself took part. The sketch really only had two jokes (1) “Madonna says Wayne’s catchphrases” and (2) “Garth is afraid of gay people.” Here’s that whole bit:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On “Born To Roll,” a 1993 single that I love deeply, Masta Ace raps over a version of the “Justify My Love” synth line. Here’s the “Born To Roll” video:

(“Born To Roll” is Masta Ace’s highest-charting single, and it peaked at #23.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Mase rapping over a “Justify My Love” sample on his 1999 Total collab “Stay Out Of My Way”:

(As lead artist, Mase’s highest-charting single is 1997’s “Feel So Good,” which peaked at #5. It’s an 8. As a guest-rapper, Mase will eventually appear in this column. As lead artists, Total’s highest-charting single is the 1998 Missy Elliott collab “Trippin’,” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8. As guests, Total got as high as #3 on the 1996 LL Cool J track “Loungin’.” It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Vita and Ashanti covered “Justify My Love” on the soundtrack of the 2001 cinematic classic The Fast And The Furious. Vita later claimed that she wanted to rap over “Justify My Love,” but Madonna wouldn’t clear it unless Vita just straight-up remade the song instead. Here’s the video for the Vita/Ashanti version:

(Vita never had a Hot 100 hit as lead artist, but she’s part of the 2002 Murder Inc. posse cut “Down 4 U,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 4. Ashanti will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Jay-Z used a version of the “Justify My Love” hook on his 2003 Black Album deep cut “Justify My Thug.” Here it is:

(Jay-Z will eventually appear in this column.)

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