The Number Ones

December 11, 1993

The Number Ones: Janet Jackson’s “Again”

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.

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Janet Jackson was an actor before she was a singer — or, at least, before most of the world heard her sing. Janet started performing in Las Vegas casinos with her brother Randy when she was seven years old. Long before she released her first single, though, Janet Jackson was an adorable TV kid who held down a series of fairly high-profile sitcom gigs. Janet was 11 when she took the role of Penny Gordon Woods on Good Times, and she was 14 when she first played Charlene Duprey on Diff’rent Strokes. She was still on Diff’rent Strokes when she released her self-titled 1982 debut album. When she finally became a pop star with 1986’s Control, Janet had only just wrapped up a two-season run on Fame a year earlier.

Considering her history, Janet Jackson could’ve theoretically transitioned from pop stardom to movie stardom long before she did. That’s a time-honored career move and often a smart business decision. Actors don’t exactly have the world’s best job security, but movie stars tend to have longer careers than pop stars. In her videos, Janet was always comfortable on camera, but she didn’t take her first film role until she was more than a half-decade into her pop-star career. When she made the jump, she made it count.

Poetic Justice was a film with a whole lot of expectations on it. In 1991, John Singleton came out with Boyz N The Hood. At the time, Singleton was 23 years old, and he’d only just graduated from USC film school. The film was something altogether new. It started as a hangout movie about a bunch of friends in South Central Los Angeles, and it eventually turned into a tragic melodrama. The cast was young and Black and charismatic, and their work in Boyz N The Hood turned at least a couple of them into stars. It made Singleton a star, too. The picture became a cultural phenomenon. At the Oscars the next year, Singleton was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, making him the both the youngest director and the first Black director ever nominated for an Oscar. Boyz was about as big as a debut film can be. Poetic Justice was Singleton’s follow-up.

Janet Jackson loved Boyz N The Hood, and John Singleton loved Janet Jackson. Boyz N The Hood was a flashy film, and as the title implies, it featured very few female characters of any note. Poetic Justice was a self-conscious departure, a sign that Singleton was not content to repeat himself. Janet Jackson could probably relate.

Poetic Justice is a small, quiet movie — a romantic road drama about two traumatized kids finding each other. Singleton cast Janet in the title role. (Her name is Justice, and she writes poems, see?) As her love interest, he cast Tupac Shakur, an up-and-coming rap star who’d been hypnotic in the villainous role of Bishop in 1992’s Juice. (Tupac Shakur will eventually appear in this column. Poetic Justice also has Janet’s future collaborator Q-Tip in the small role of Justice’s boyfriend; he gets killed in the first scene. Q-Tip’s highest-charting single, 1999’s “Vivrant Thing,” peaked at #26. Tip will eventually appear in this column as a producer.)

I’ve always liked Poetic Justice. It was on TV a lot in the mid-’90s, and it’s got a slight, comforting rhythm to it. Janet and Tupac have find a charming, comfortable rapport. They’re believable when they hate each other, and they’re just as believable when they fall in love. Poetic Justice only did middling business, and critics seemed to think that Singleton, a potential voice of a generation, should make bigger and bolder statements. Janet didn’t take another film role until she showed up in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps seven years later. But Poetic Justice did give Janet Jackson her seventh #1 hit.

Poetic Justice came out in theaters a couple of months after Janet Jackson released her album janet., but the album still included “Again,” a song written specifically for the movie. While Janet was working in the studio with her regular collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the producers of Poetic Justice called and asked for a soundtrack song. Those producers had specific requirements: The song had to be a ballad, and Janet had to sing it in character. “Again” is supposed to be Justice, Janet’s character, thinking about Lucky, Tupac’s character. On some kind of meta-cultural level, it’s a little funny that Janet came up with light, fluffy song that’s a million miles removed from anything that Tupac would’ve ever made.

Before Janet got that request from the Poetic Justice producers, she heard a piano line that Jimmy Jam wrote in the studio. Everyone thought that piano melody was beautiful, but nobody had any plans to do anything with it until Janet got that request from the studio. Janet sat down with Jam and Lewis to watch Poetic Justice, and the three of them came up with the song. Janet wrote all the lyrics, which are all about trying and failing to avoid falling in love with an ex all over again. (If I’m remembering the movie right, Justice and Lucky break up and get back together more than once.) Jam and Lewis tried to build a whole song around that piano line.

Listening to “Again,” it’s not too hard to tell that it’s a work made for hire. It’s a very pretty song, but it’s also oddly undercooked. That Jimmy Jam piano line is absolutely gorgeous; I love the way it sort of tumbles all over itself, like water in a creek. But that piano line is not enough to carry the song by itself. If Janet didn’t have to tailor the song to the movie’s specifications, it’s easy to imagine her throwing a big honking house beat under that piano, but “Again” had to be something else. Jam and Lewis brought in a bunch of Minnesota-based orchestral musicians, but those musicians don’t add much. Most of the backing track is just that piano burbling away while all these strings and woodwinds sort of pointlessly circle the track. Nothing quite locks in.

The smallness of “Again” isn’t exactly a failure. I kind of like it, honestly. So many of the schmaltzy ballads that have appeared in this column are big and booming and obvious. “Again” is softer and more intimate. It doesn’t present its emotions as life-or-death melodrama. Janet Jackson sings the whole thing in second person, like she’s addressing Tupac, but it scans more as an internal monologue, like the Maya Angelou-written poems that Janet reads in the Poetic Justice voiceover. The arrangement could be a lot better, but it’s a pretty song that’s content to be nothing more than a pretty song. There’s a ceiling to that kind of thing, but on its own limited terms, it works.

Janet Jackson has sung plenty of ballads, but she’s not a balladeer. She doesn’t howl out big notes, and her stardom is built more around dance and image and presence than around her technical power. I really like her vocal on “Again.” She’s poised and conversational and sweet. Her voice rises with the swells of the song, like she’s bobbing along in the current. Her “Again” chorus is simple and direct: “How can I be strong? I’ve asked myself/ Time and time I’ve said/ That I’ll never fall in love with you again.” By the time the song ends, she’s changed her mind, but it doesn’t sound like weakness. It sounds like she’s talked herself back into falling in love.

For reasons that were presumably contractual, “Again” did not appear on the Poetic Justice soundtrack album. That soundtrack, which went gold, is a nice little collection of circa-’93 rap and R&B. 2Pac’s “Definition Of A Thug N***a” is on there, and it’s also got tracks from people like Babyface, Tha Dogg Pound, Naughty By Nature, and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. The biggest hit was TLC’s “Get It Up,” a cover of a song that the Time had originally released in 1981. Jam and Lewis had been in the Time back then, but they didn’t have anything to do with that cover, which Dallas Austin produced. (TLC’s version of “Get It Up” peaked at #42. TLC will eventually appear in this column.) But that TLC song probably isn’t as historically relevant as “Call Me A Mack,” the album’s third single. “Call Me A Mack” didn’t even make the Hot 100, but it’s the debut single from a promising 14-year-old singer named Usher. We’ll see a lot of that guy in this column.

Janet Jackson didn’t release “Again” as a single until October of 1993; Poetic Justice would’ve been out of theaters by then. Maybe that timing was strategic. Maybe she released “Again” as a single so that it would be fresh in the mind of Oscar voters. Then again, the “Again” video didn’t have anything to do with the movie. Janet’s then-husband René Elizondo, Jr., who’d already directed her “That’s The Way Love Goes” clip, made the “Again” video. It’s a soft-focus romantic thing, and it pairs Janet with future CSI star Gary Dourdan.

Whether or not Janet was intentionally pushing for an Oscar nomination, it worked. “Again” was nominated for Best Original Song, and that was the only Oscar nomination for Poetic Justice. At the ceremony in 1994, Janet sang “Again” with Jimmy Jam accompanying her on piano and with former Number Ones artist Bill Conti’s orchestra backing her up. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Jimmy Jam says that he forgot how to play “Again” the moment that he sat down at the piano, but he got through the performance just fine.

“Again” didn’t win the Oscar. Janet lost that one to Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets Of Philadelphia,” which was probably always going to win. (“Streets Of Philadelphia” peaked at #9. It’s a 6. At least right now, it’s Springsteen’s final top-10 single. Springsteen’s highest-charting single is 1984’s “Dancing In The Dark,” which peaked at #2. That one is an 8.) Even if Janet Jackson didn’t win that Oscar, though, things were still going pretty well for her.

After “That’s The Way Love Goes” and “Again,” none of the other singles from janet. made it to #1, but the album still went platinum six times over, and it still launched three more top-10 hits. Janet followed “Again” with the breezy dance track “Because Of Love,” which peaked at #10. (It’s a 7.) After that, Janet made it all the way up to #2 with the horny slow jam “Any Time, Any Place.” (That’s another 7.) “Any Time, Any Place” didn’t have anything to do with Poetic Justice, but that song remains intertwined with the music in a vague sort of way. In 2013, Kendrick Lamar and Drake, two rappers who will eventually appear in this column, rapped over an “Any Time, Any Place” sample on Kendrick’s song “Poetic Justice.” (“Poetic Justice” peaked at #26.)

In the fall of 1994, Janet released a remix of the Supremes-sampling dance track “You Want This” that featured a verse from MC Lyte, and that remix peaked at #8. (It’s one more 7.) “You Want This” was the sixth and final single from janet., and all six of those singles went top-10. During that janet. album cycle, Janet Jackson effectively reinvented herself yet again. She famously appeared topless, with her husband’s hands over her boobs, on the cover of Rolling Stone. She launched another arena tour. When that album cycle finally ended, the hits kept coming. Janet Jackson will appear in this column again.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the dazed, misty “Again” cover that How To Dress Well released in 2012:

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