Consider the numbers.
That’s how many years it had been since Janet Jackson released a new album. It’s also how long it had been since she undertook an arena tour.
Seven plus seven equals 14, which is the number of years that had passed since she made an entire album with producer/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the former Minneapolis duo whose hit-filled, Grammy-winning careers are forever intertwined with Jackson’s.
It was worth the wait. Jam and Lewis, who moved to Los Angeles a decade ago, teamed with Jackson for “Unbreakable,” which debuted at No. 1 this month. With the queen of Rhythm Nation headed to Minneapolis for a concert Sunday at Target Center, we talked to Jam and Lewis about her, their hometown and Kevin Garnett.
Q: How does it feel to have a No. 1 album?
Jam: It feels surreal. You couldn’t predict that kind of stuff 30 years ago — that we’d be standing with her in a sold-out arena with a No. 1 record [which they did in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago]. That is crazy to me. When you first interviewed us [in the mid-1980s], I said, “We don’t want to be the hottest; we just want to be warm for a long time.” That’s what we set out to do, and this is a bit of a culmination of that. Although we’re still trying to stay warm.
Q: What’s your reaction to “Unbreakable” selling 116,000 copies in its first week?
Jam: I think that’s great. It was keeping with where the business is right now with actual sales. But if someone gave you this set of circumstances: [An artist] hasn’t had a record for seven years, the last two projects were less warmly received, the record is being put out on an independent label that’s never had a No. 1 record, the first single is not chasing trends, there is no video, there are no appearances. Someone would say to you: “You’re nuts.” When the album came out, she was on vacation. There were no talk shows, no interviews. To do that and achieve those numbers, it’s totally on her and shows the loyalty of fans.
Lewis: To me, this was an awesome feeling because we still are valued and have something to say in this industry. After this many years, the chemistry still works.
Q: You didn’t work with her on “Discipline,” in 2008. And you only worked on a few songs on the previous two albums, “20 Y.O.” and “Damita Jo.” What was it like to work with her again?
Lewis: I love her to death. You go through things in life. We were just waiting to get back together.
Jam: She was in a place where she wanted to make an album and she wanted to do it on her own label so she could release it the way she wanted to. There was going to be no outside influence. The only reason we got into the project was because it was going to be the way we did it in the old days.
The first song she did was “After You Fall,” which is one of the vocally best songs on the record. It’s just piano and her voice. She said, “My voice has changed a little bit. I’m not sure about hitting some of the notes.” She started singing with that sense of “Am I gonna be able to pull this off?”
I played it back. And she never gives herself any sort of compliment; the best you can get from her is something like “that’s not bad” or “I don’t really mind that.” But she actually was pleasantly surprised.
Q: On “After You Fall,” she’s a lot jazzier than she’s ever been. And there seem to be new voices for her on this project.
Jam: A lot of that is just experience and maturation. She’s a huge fan of all forms of music and listens to everything and [that] informs the way she thinks.
She has a lot of range and a lot of depth. You see that on the record. Some days her voice would be real raspy, and that’s what we would do.
Q: At times, her voice recalls her brother Michael’s. Did you discuss that? Especially on “The Great Forever.”
Jam: No. When people said that, I wasn’t thinking that at all.
Lewis: Nor I.
Jam: As far as how she uses the percussiveness of her voice, we’ve always enjoyed that about the way she sings. The way she puts the rhythm into her voice. We’re aware of that. I think it’s probably we haven’t heard Michael’s voice in a while. Maybe it’s more so on “Broken Hearts Heal” because that song is about him.
But that wasn’t a planned thing. She started snapping her fingers, which is something Michael does when he records. It was kind of natural and she said, “Sorry, I’ll stop doing that.” And I said, “No. You should do that if that’s what you’re feeling.”
I think it’s just her attitude about the song. At no time did we say: “Go sing like Michael.”
Lewis: It’s in the family genes.
Q: Much of the discussion about this album is that Janet, at age 49, seems more demure and less overtly sexual, although the album is definitely sensual. Did you discuss that during the songwriting process?
Lewis: It was just personal growth. She can’t help but be sexy. I don’t think that was the theme that she wanted to go with at this point in her life.
Jam: There wasn’t a lot of pre-thought anything. That is part of the magic of the record, to me.
That’s the way we always did the records. We didn’t aim for a particular audience or genre or anything. It just happened. I’d call this a divine result. To me, it’s a very spiritual record. We didn’t set out to do that, but it was the kind of record that needed to be made at this point by her.
It’s about the coming together of the three of us, and I think you hear the joy in making the record. Janet is obviously our best muse and we hadn’t worked with her for a long time.
Q: Who else are you working with?
Jam: The only other artist we worked with this year was Charlie Wilson. We’re working with Bruno Mars right now. We have a group called the Roney Boys. The lead singer is 13. We’ve been doing a lot of work in Japan.
Q: How often do you get back to the Twin Cities?
Lewis: Fairly often. My mother and sisters are there. Two, three, sometimes four times a year.
Jam: I haven’t been there since summer of last year.
Q: What’s the status of the Original 7ven, your reunion of the Time from 2011?
Lewis: Defunct. That was a dream deferred. It was supposed to be getting back together making some music and having some fun. It turned out that it took the fun out of fun.
Jam: Next time I’ll know better. I am proud of the record.
Lewis: I love the guys. It’s just everybody had a different agenda, and that’s OK.
Q: What do you think about Kevin Garnett coming back to the Timberwolves?
Lewis: It’s full circle. It’s beautiful. It’s the best way to go out. And it’s great for the organization. You’ve got to get somebody in there who inspires [players] to want to stay.
Jam: He loves Minnesota, or ’Sota, as he calls it. He never gave his house up there. I think he’s happy.
Q: Are you coming to Minneapolis to see Janet at Target Center?
Lewis: We’re talking about it.
Jam: I’d love an excuse to go back home. That would be the ultimate one. It’s on my to-do list.
Lewis: I had my ultimate the other day. My daughter danced with Janet on “Rhythm Nation” in Los Angeles. I’m still high from that. And actually she’s doing the next two shows. She’s 12. Tieria.
If we go to Minneapolis, I’d let her do the show, too, in front of my family.