Getting Justified | How Madonna’s 1990 Hit Was Almost Stolen Away From Ingrid Chavez.
Madonna’s career is punctuated by chameleon-like change. By the end of the 80s, she was beginning to take a more adult approach to her sound and writing. Her acting role in Dick Tracy and subsequent provocative smash tour (The Blonde Ambition Tour) would be key signs of what would come from the star next.
It would be a Prince prestige Ingrid Chavez and Lenny Kravitz that would take the pop star to new subversive heights. Chavez, who had worked with Prince on his 1990 film Graffiti Bridge, would take the lyrics of “Justify My Love” from one of her letters she had written. It would be Kravitz that would provide the instrumentation and hypnotic backing vocals to the track.
Ingrid recalls the writing process as:
“Writing ‘Justify My Love’ with Lenny Kravitz and Andre Betts was one of those moments when magic just happened. Andre got a beat going, Lenny recorded a synth line and then he asked me if I had something I wanted to say. I had a letter on me (my letters are like poems) and so I got on the mic and basically read the letter. One take and the rest is history.”
Lenny has stated that he called Madonna to tell her he had a hit song for her.
He recalls her only listening to the demo twice before agreeing to cut the track for her next project. The issue comes in around the writing credits. Chavez would be talked out of songwriting credits by Kravitz (who has previously stated that he wrote the song). Ingrid, in turn, would sue for writing credits and royalty rights in 1992.
This appears to have been spurred on by Prince’s displeasure in Chavez’s decision to give up her trademark sound and writing style so easily. She would settle out of court, and the song, with its black and white erotic video, would become another number 1 hit for Madonna. The Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed video would be banned from MTV due to its explicit nature, and thus VHS copies of the video would only bolster sales of the single.
There are now two versions of the track: the Madonna original and a Chavez original take released in 2020.
Madonna’s cadence takes a much more aggressive approach. She almost bites the words through her seductive spoken refrain. The role she takes on is dominant. You feel as if she’s pushed you onto the bed and is about to have her way with you as she speaks the lines, “You put this in me / So now what, so now what?” Her strong stance, coupled with the Public Enemy/James Brown drum sample and Kravitz's almost trip-hop meets house production, perfectly sets us up for the future of Dita and Erotica to come.
Madonna takes it over the top with moments of stifled breaths, like holding in an orgasm, and breathy moans.
I really like that Ingrid Chavez recorded her own take on the song. The backing track gives a more funky vibe (you can hear a little Minneapolis sound inspiration). She goes a much more ambient meets soul approach. Chavez brings a much warmer energy to the song.
Through her delivery, you get the sense of pleading for release. Her’s is an invitation to quell the surging fires of passion burning for him, “Poor is the man / Whose pleasures depend / On the permission of another / Love me, that’s right, love me / I want to be your baby.” I much prefer the purr of Ingrid’s intonation over Madonna’s ravenous one.
Clearly, Madonna’s career only blossomed for the decade to come. Ingrid would release her eponymous first spoken word album through Prince’s label Paisley Park Records in 1991. She took a break in the 90s to raise her children but returned to music in 2010. Ingrid continues to make spoken word and original music albums to this day, with the last album being 2019’s Memories of Flying.
I find the history and distinctive versions of the song to be very interesting. I would love to hear your thoughts on the two and any additional insight you may have about the song's production and release.
All in all, here are my thoughts on each:
- Madonna’s “Justify My Love” gets a 6.0 out of 10. It’s solid yet dated. The production didn’t age the best over time, and some of the more overt sexuality feels a bit forced. I do appreciate the more domineering tone Madonna takes. For a pop song, it’s brazen.
- Ingrid Chavez’s “Justify My Love” gets an 8.0 out of 10. The more stylized approach really breathes life into the song. The ambient/trip-hop vibe really plays up the passion in Chavez’s words. Her delivery of the lines also oozes sexuality in a much more organic and honest way than the 1990 original.
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