It was 30 years ago this week that Madonna’s racy, Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed “Justify My Love” music video made its television debut, on ABC’s Nightline, after it had been rejected by MTV the week before. Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment while promoting his fascinating new memoir Let Love Rule, Lenny Kravitz, who cowrote the trip-hoppy track with former Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez, still finds it amusing that the artsy clip, which featured fetish imagery and partial nudity, generated so much controversy at the time. But he marvels at how his savvy friend turned what could have been a career setback into a groundbreaking marketing opportunity. “Justify” went on to sell 5 million copies in the U.S., and it still holds the record for best-selling video single of all time.
“The video was banned, which when you look at it now, you wonder why,” says Kravitz from his Bahamas home. “It looks very light now, you know, but it was beautiful and sensual and gritty, a beautiful black-and-white film. And since MTV banned it, [Madonna] decided to sell the video [on VHS, for $9.98], and each video counted as a single. … I remember people being lined up around Tower Records, around the block, to get this video of Madonna, and the thing went No. 1. And it was No. 1, globally, for I don't know how long. It was enormous. In fact, it was her biggest hit at that point in her career.”
Kravitz was just getting started in his own career at that point — his debut album, also titled Let Love Rule, had come out the year before and had peaked at No. 61 on the Billboard 200, mostly on the strength of college radio airplay. And his friendship with Madonna, which had developed while touring that record and hanging out in the European club scene, was still new. Yet he already had the confidence to know that “Justify My Love,” despite not seeming like a typical pop single (and certainly not like a typical Kravitz song), would be a mainstream smash. And he had the confidence to try to talk Madonna into recording it herself.
“It was super-sexy and hard at the same time. I just felt it. I just knew that there was something very special about the track and the minimum quality, because it was so minimal. Just a gut thing,” Kravitz muses, revealing that he is sitting on his own unfinished version of the song, which he might release someday.
“I was working on some demos, and ‘Justify My Love’ came up and I loved it, but I knew it wasn't for me,” Kravitz recalls. “I thought it would be perfect for Madonna. So I called her and I said, ‘I have a No. 1 song for you.’ And she said, ‘No, you don't.’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do. … Where are you? I'll bring it over.’” That very same day, in New York City, Kravitz found himself standing in front of Madonna, “Justify” demo in hand. (The demo included Kravitz’s moaning guide vocal, which ended up on the final version and can be better heard on an amusing fan-made, isolated-vocal YouTube video.)
“She said, ‘Put it in. Go ahead.’ And I put it in the cassette deck, turned the console up to 10, and out it came,” Kravitz recalls of the fateful Madonna meeting. “And the whole room got really quiet. And it ended and she said, ‘Play it again.’ I pushed play, played it again, and she said, ‘Let's record it.’ And I think we started the next day.”
Kravitz, who has always maintained and he and Madonna never dated, gets a sly grin on his face as he recalls the “Justify My Love” recording session — and it seems he’s saving its juicier details for a possible second memoir. “It was just the two of us and my engineers, and it happened in one day. It was very quick. And, uh, there are details about that session that I cannot tell you, but it was fun. It was fun — and very sensual,” he says coyly. “Just know that it was all very authentic.”
Kravitz’s Let Love Rule book instead focuses on his “golden childhood” in New York and Los Angeles, as well as his struggle to find his musical identity in his teens and early twenties. This was a time when he temporarily adopted the cobalt-contact-lensed new wave alter ego Romeo Blue and turned down multiple career opportunities — including an offer from Motown’s Berry Gordy to record the eventual Rockwell smash “Somebody’s Watching Me,” a chance to be in a pop group envisioned as a “Black Duran Duran,” and a Capitol Records deal with a short-lived funk-rock band called Maggie’s Dream. Ironically, it was when Kravitz finally found his real voice, and switched back to his real name, that he had trouble finding the right record label.
“Here was the odd thing: When they were saying I sounded ‘too white,’ they were referring to rock ‘n’ roll, which made no sense, because Black people invented rock ‘n’ roll. So I could never understand,” Kravitz says. “When I was shopping this material, at that time you still had the ‘Black A&R’ [department], and then you had ‘pop.’ So, they'd see the color of my skin and say that I should go see the people in the Black department. I'd play the material, and of course they said it ‘wasn't Black enough.’ And then they sent me over to the pop side, and they’d say ‘it's too Black,’ or whatever. So, I was caught in the middle with all the sounds that I was working with, and it took a moment.”
Kravitz eventually found the right label home at Virgin Records in 1989 — “They said, ‘We don't know how we're going to market this, or really how to approach this, but we believe in the music’” — and he started building a following in Europe. He crossed over to the U.S. mainstream in the early ‘90s with his first top 10 hit, “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over” (which went to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100) and, of course, with “Justify My Love.” Kravitz’s Let Love Rule autobiography ends shortly after the release of his debut album and wedding to actress Lisa Bonet — and before that “sensual” Madonna recording session — but its final line is “to be continued...” So, Kravitz quips, “When and if I get to that [second] book, I may let [the “Justify My Love” studio details] out then.”
Kravitz adds: “I didn't want this [first] book to be about fame or anything like that. This is really about me finding my voice and my expression. That's why I ended it when I was embarking on the Let Love Rule tour. … Because from that point on, it gets real interesting. It gets complicated. It gets really complex. And so, that's where the next chapter will begin.”
Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s full, extended interview with Lenny Kravitz about his book, his childhood, his early career struggles, his self-image, his friendship with ex-wife Lisa Bonet, and how songs like “Let Love Rule” and “I Built This Garden for Us” still politically resonate in 2020:
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Produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick.