The Number Ones

January 19, 1991

The Number Ones: Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

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Imagine having a glorious and effervescent can’t-miss pop song, a song that could easily turn around the chart fortunes of an underperforming album, in your back pocket. Janet Jackson had a song like that, and she let that song sit in her pocket for more than a year. She didn’t need that song. Rhythm Nation 1814, the album that Jackson released in September of 1989, was an absolute smash, and its singles kept racing up the pop charts. By the time Jackson finally released “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” as a single, she’d already come out with six Rhythm Nation singles, and all six of them had landed in the top five of Billboard‘s Hot 100. Three of those songs had gone all the way to #1. So when “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” finally topped the Hot 100, that was Janet Jackson running up the score and then stunting on all her peers with an elaborately choreographed end-zone dance.

When “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” reached #1, Rhythm Nation became the first album to have singles that topped the Hot 100 during three different calendar years. That’s one of those weird chart records that publicists invent, and it’s not really all that important. Rhythm Nation came out late in the year, during a time when album cycles were getting longer, so it’s not that big of an achievement. But another Rhythm Nation chart record matters a lot more.

More than a decade earlier, Janet Jackson’s big brother Michael had released seven of the nine songs on Thriller as singles, and all seven had reached the top 10. It was the first time that anything like that had ever happened. With the success of “Love Will Never Do,” Rhythm Nation had seven singles that went into the top five, another first. Rhythm Nation didn’t sell anywhere near as many copies as Thriller, but at least in pure pop-chart terms, Janet had outdone Michael. That must’ve felt good.

“Love Will Never Do (Without You),” the song that solidified those chart achievements, came from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson’s longtime collaborators. Jam and Lewis actually wrote and recorded the backing track for “Love Will Never Do” before Jackson even showed up in Minneapolis to record Rhythm Nation. Originally, Jam and Lewis had conceived the song as a duet — two singers playing characters who marveled at how perfectly they fit together. The producers thought about recording the song with one of the singers who they were working with at the time — Prince, Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant. But Jam and Lewis abandoned those plans, and they made “Love Will Never Do” as a Janet Jackson solo track. As cool as it might’ve been to hear Prince and Jackson on a song together, Jam and Lewis made the right call. Nobody ever fit with Janet Jackson quite as well as Janet Jackson did.

When Jackson came in to work on “Love Will Never Do,” Jam and Lewis tried out some different ideas with her. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Jimmy Jam says, “When she went in and sang the first verse, I said, ‘Sing it low like some guy would sing it.’ We just loved the way it sounded, and we said, ‘Let’s just leave it like this.’ So she sings the first verse in this really low octave and goes up an octave on the second verse.” Janet Jackson was never a showy vocalist, and she rarely gets proper credit for what she could do with her voice. But I love the contrast of that first verse, where Jackson really does sing like a man, and the second, where she’s her usual bubbly self. It shows the sense of presence and personality that she brought to those songs. “Love Will Never Do” doesn’t sound like a duet; Janet Jackson always sounds like Janet Jackson. But each of the verses has its own personality, and those changes push the song’s momentum.

Really, lots of things pushed that momentum. “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” is a marvel of production. On paper, “Love Will Never Do” is fairly slight. It’s a reflection on defying friends’ projections and finding ways to make a relationship work: “There’s no easy explanation for it/ But whenever there’s a problem/ We always work it out somehow.” But in its relentless forward motion, “Love Will Never Do” transcends its own subject matter and becomes something bigger.

The six-minute album version of “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” opens with a soft synth glimmer and some heartbeat thumps that mimic the “Be My Baby” opening. But then everything come rushing in: a thunderous bass-drum boom, a percussive slap-bass, a whole lot of bells and whistles that make that beat sound even bigger. As the song goes on, that opening synth melody returns, and Jam and Lewis keep piling on more and more instrumental sweeteners — including, near the end of the song, a bunch of ecstatically funky horn-bursts from Herb Alpert, the former Number Ones artist who was one of Jackson’s label bosses at A&M. In the background, a mob of voices chant the song’s title. By the time the song suddenly ends, it sounds like a party.

In the Bronson book, Jimmy Jam says that all of the intricately arranged backing vocals on “Love Will Never Do” are Janet Jackson herself. The song’s credits tell another story; they list a few different backing singers, including Terry Lewis. But Jackson’s voice is definitely all over the song, and that constant presence goes a long way toward charging the song’s energy up. Jam says, “It’s important for it to be a Janet Jackson record, for her to sing all the parts.”

Jimmy Jam also says that he and Terry Lewis recorded her singing those backup bits before she laid down the lead vocal: “The backgrounds were a great way of getting her range back together and making her voice strong again — and also, of becoming familiar with the songs. After we got the backgrounds done, she couldn’t wait to sing the lead.” I think you can hear that excitement all over “Love Will Never Do.” Janet Jackson doesn’t just sing on the song; she whoops and trills and scats and ad-libs little calls and responses. She cheers the song on.

For the “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” video, Janet Jackson worked with Herb Ritts, the famous fashion photographer who’d already done Madonna’s “Cherish” video. (“Cherish” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.) Ritts shot Jackson in perfume-commercial black-and-white, filming her out in a desert. The clip uses a slightly different mix of “Love Will Never Do.” It opens with an a cappella version of the chorus, with Ritts’ camera panning over some ridiculously gorgeous silhouetted bodies, setting the tone before the song’s synth intro even kicks in.

I’ve read a few articles that posit the “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” video as the first time that Janet Jackson presented herself as a sexual being, which set the tone for her next few records. I don’t know about all that. To my eyes, Jackson was plenty sexual back on Control, as well. It’s just that “Love Will Never Do” uses that sexuality in a different way. Where previous videos made a big show out of their choreography, Herb Ritts’ camera is more interested in atmosphere, in staring at the beauty of bodies in space and motion.

Janet Jackson does look hot as hell in the “Love Will Never Do” video, and her outfit — a halter top, some tight jeans — is a little more form-fitting than what she’d worn in previous clips. But the camera definitely does a lot more to objectify Jackson’s co-stars. Those co-stars are two absurdly beautiful men who never put on shirts and who spend the entire video rocking either billowy pajama pants or tighty whities. In the years ahead, both of those men — future two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou and future Calvin Klein model/soap star/weird Trump guy Antonio Sab├áto Jr. — would become a whole lot more famous. In the clip, Janet Jackson looks like she’s having fun with those guys. Good for her.

Jackson released “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” as a single in October of 1990, when “Black Cat” was still climbing the charts and Rhythm Nation had already been out for more than a year. “Love Will Never Do” was the last proper single from Rhythm Nation, but Jackson could’ve easily run up her numbers even more.

After “Love Will Never Do” reached #1, A&M started pushing “State Of The World” to radio. But the label went along with the new record-industry logic. They didn’t release “State Of The World” as a commercial single, thinking they could push more people toward buying the album if they couldn’t buy the one song. (This might’ve worked? Rhythm Nation had already sold five million copies in the US. It eventually sold another million, but it probably would’ve done that anyway.) “State Of The World” reached #5 on Billboard‘s Radio Songs chart, so it almost certainly would’ve been a top 10 hit on the Hot 100 if it had a chance to chart there. (It would’ve been an 8.)

Janet Jackson still made the top 10 one more time before she got around to recording her next album. In 1992, Jackson got together with Luther Vandross to record “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” a song that was part of the soundtrack of the Damon Wayans vehicle Mo’ Money. Jam and Lewis produced “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” and it had more vocals from Bel Biv DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant — a whole lot of R&B talent for what’s basically a house song. (“The Best Things In Life Are Free” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

By the time “The Best Things In Life Are Free” came out, Janet Jackson was a whole lot richer. Rhythm Nation 1814 was the last album under Jackson’s contract with A&M. In March of 1991, Jackson signed with Virgin Records for $32 million — at that point, the biggest recording contract of all time. Virgin paid a lot of money, but the label made a smart investment. Janet Jackson will appear in this column many more times.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: At a 2001 MTV-special salute to Janet Jackson, Macy Gray sang a raspy, breathless, messy cover of “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” inadvertently proving what a good singer Janet Jackson is. Here’s Gray’s performance:

(Macy Gray’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “I Try,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: The UK dance producer Joy Orbison sampled Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” vocals, using them as a kind of echoing disembodied howl of joy, on his critically adored 2009 underground hit “Hyph Mngo.” Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Jamie xx, another esoteric UK dance producer, also sampled Janet Jackson’s “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” vocals on his debut solo single “Far Nearer” in 2011, using it for a similar sort of textural effect. Here’s that track:

(Jamie xx has never had a Hot 100 hit as lead artist, and neither has his band the xx. But Jamie did co-produce Drake’s 2011 Rihanna duet “Take Care,” which peaked at #7. It’s a 10.)

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