Get our free newsletter
It’s time to listen to Janet Jackson’s brilliant “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” as loud as your current social circumstance will allow. I promise it will be pleasurable.
“What’s the next song?” Jackson asks, flipping through papers.
“The one about me,” Q-Tip responds with characteristic humor and bravado.
The beat drops.
“Oh yeah,” Jackson coos quietly. “I like this one…”
This sexy, perfect song is, well, sexy and perfect.
Yes, this 1997 song famously samples Joni Mitchell. We’ll get to that. But let’s start with the beat. In this song, Jackson—remember, a privileged member of one of America’s royal families—embraces hip-hop culture with passion and verve. The beat’s purposeful, gently swinging boom-bap groove certainly suggests ’90s hip-hop. And indeed, the song features two bonafide hip-hop geniuses: Q-Tip and the late Detroit beat wizard Dilla. So if you feel like the vibe and pace of the song evokes A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes & Life, there is a reason for that.
The conspicuous hip-hop flavor that suffuses this music carries some controversy. There is disagreement about who exactly produced it. Jackson’s longtime collaborators and music biz titans Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are officially credited, but Q-Tip and Dilla (working as production team called The Ummah) say they were the real producers.
Whoever was the true architect, the machine-tooled groove of the song feels strongly hedonic. Though it has a synthetic origin (likely an Akai MPC drum machine). It feels natural and warm and human.
And the song is definitely about human feelings. Its most celebrated and daring feature is a brazen sample of the chorus of Joni Mitchell’s famous environmentalist lament “Big Yellow Taxi.” Samples can serve many functions in music, and this one feels like straight-forward homage and tribute. You sense that Jackson has genuine affection for Mitchell’s work. And indeed, the sample carries the actual title of the song.
“Don’t it always seem to go/ that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” In the original song, this refers to the disappearance of the natural world as it is displaced by commerce and urban development. But Janet Jackson’s stroke of genius here is to recast these poignant words in the personal context of lost love. I find that thrilling.
Notice that the famous sample is swallowed by a record scratch. “Don’t it always seem to go/ that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s—[record scratch].” The re- cord scratch evokes erasure. And the word being erased is “gone.” The whole thing is wildly meta.
There is absolutely no way they could have done this song without Mitchell’s blessing. She is credited as co-writer (as she should be) and she clearly understood the collage aspect of this art. I think she also understood the component of tribute. Near the end of this song, Jackson even laughs as an homage to Mitchell’s laugh in “Taxi.” I imagine Mitchell enjoyed a mild boost of both fame and royalty checks, neither of which she particularly lacked.
In this song, Jackson makes her voice small and vulnerable and quivering and tender … to the extent that you may not even be able to make out the words. But if you seek them out, you find the words speak of forlorn regret. “I have the feeling/ now believing/ you were the one I was/ meant to be with…” Painful! Hits you right in the heart. “How’d I ever let you get away?”
Guest star MC Q-Tip rides alongside Jackson’s quivering melody with his perfected, syncopated (almost coital?) “uh-huh”s, heard in countless Tribe songs. Periodically, he declares “Joni Mitchell never lies!” And this is certainly now one of the signature hooks of the song.
I want to draw your attention to the dynamic between Jackson and Tip. Remember, the song begins with Tip saying the song is “the one about me.” And it turns out that is exactly the premise of “Got ‘Til It’s Gone.” Ostensibly, Jackson is singing to Q-Tip here. Or she is certainly singing about Q-Tip.
Were these professional, fictional roles they agreed to specifically for the song? Or is this some strange, uneasy terrain of non-fiction—Janet Jackson and Q-Tip as real-life ex-lovers, singing about the dissolution of their relationship. The former seems far more likely and believable, but the latter is not beyond the realm of possibility. And I suppose part of the fun of the song is this kind of speculation. Another layer of meta.
Near the end of the song, Q-Tip jumps into the spotlight with a rap from his perspective, laying out a narrative that he (or the charac- ter he plays in this song) was falsely accused of infidelity. His writing, flow, and cadence are unassailable and unique. Quite simply, the man was born to it. A pure talent. The rap suggests he (or the character) feels he was cast aside wrongly and he’s bitter about it.
Q-Tip’s presence is so charismatic, and his perspective so novel, it almost manages to steal the song from both Jackson and Mitchell. Which is extraordinary, when you think about what forces they are. Tip ends with the song’s other iconic hook, “Now why you wanna go and do that, love? Huh?”
And you can’t help but sing along when he repeats it.
Are there any other love songs that allow the song’s object to present a stinging rebuke at the end? I honestly don’t know. It seems like the final innovation of this classic single.
But there is one more: the video.
The name of this essay series is One Song and, by that circumscription, I should limit myself to discussing the world of sound. But I can’t resist adding special mention of the bold, memorable video. In my mind, the video is forever linked to the song.
The video is profoundly, indelibly Afrocentric. Afrocentric not just in a spiritual sense, but a literal geographic one. It’s set in apartheid-era South Africa, surreally inspired by vintage 1970s issues of Drum magazine, basically a South African Life magazine. The video is highly sensual and just a little bit bizarre. It depicts a vibrant, thrumming community of black Africans at a … club, maybe? It is the vibrancy that strikes you. Look at all these gorgeous people enduring this nasty, humiliating political circumstance. Observe their dignity and perseverance. Look at how sensual their lives are.
It’s an exciting, politically charged statement to set the song in this world. It certainly wasn’t necessary. Why was this choice made? How does it interact with the song? It certainly compounds the complexity of the song, but you sense that it only enriches what is already there.
I encourage you to watch the video and consider the implications of each shot. And be glad that someone as popular, wealthy, and comfortable as Janet Jackson took such an artistic risk.
Read more from Chad Clark’s One Song essay series here.