It’s rare to see a pop icon return, still thriving, thirty years deep into their career — let alone two in the same year.
And yet, here we are in 2015, with two records by both Madonna and Janet Jackson, inarguably two of the most culture-shaking, game-changing entertainers of the ’80s and beyond. Their contributions to pop are nothing short of iconic — in the actual, non-Internet abused sense of the word: The choreography, the tours, the outfits, the scandals, the music. It’s hard to find a pop star today who doesn’t count at least one of the two as their main sources of inspiration. We’re spoiled to still have them both, frankly.
But the method by which the two extended their musical legacies differs drastically: Whereas Madge kept her crown fastened with the help of today’s most in-demand, hashtag-friendly tastemakers on her unapologetic Rebel Heart — Diplo, Kanye West and Avicii among others — Janet’s kept it simple and plush in comparison, returning to her roots with the duo that started it all: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the prolific producers behind the boards through almost her entire career, from 1986’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” up to 20 Y.O.‘s “So Excited.” The partnership is a sacred one; a continuously rewarding, ever-evolving collaboration that has endured for decades.
Much has changed since Jackson’s last studio outing seven years ago with the underrated Discipline: The untimely death of her brother (and, for many of us, the King of Pop) Michael Jackson, a greatest hits tour, a quiet marriage to a Qatari billionaire. And despite the loud rumblings over the years suggesting otherwise, Janet’s return to music seemed entirely unlikely…until we heard it from her lips.
As it turns out, Janet was putting in work at night in the studio while the rest of us were slee(e)ping.
Guess we should’ve known better.
Janet’s never been one to let the confines of genre hold her back, and she certainly isn’t starting now: Sonically, Unbreakable swerves in every direction — piano ballads, hip-hop, electric guitar riffs, trance pulsations and country twang — yet it still plays like a Janet classic.
But if you were expecting Miss Jackson to deliver a “Rope Burn,” a “Throb” or two, or perhaps even a little “Discipline,” get your hands out of your pants and recalibrate your smutty expectations: Miss Jackson-if-ya-nasty is nowhere to be found this time around. While her signature breathy delivery is sensual by nature, the majority of Unbreakable has more to do with indulging in fantasies about the future than about foreplay.
That shift might also have a lot to do with her newfound spirituality, considering her reported conversion to Islam in the past few years. As fans were quick to notice, the singer who once went topless for Rolling Stone has shifted into much more modest territory — her Unbreakable World Tour outfits supply nearly head-to-toe coverage. There’s even some religious Arabic phrases scattered deep within: “Insha’Allah, see you in the next life,” she sings on “Broken Hearts Heal.”
Not that she’s entirely buttoned up: She did kick off the campaign with her luscious bedroom jam “No Sleeep.” With a relaxed, “That’s The Way Love Goes” slinkiness, Janet took her sweet, sensual time warming up for the next go-around, proudly declaring herself the Queen of Insomnia. What exactly do you think is keeping her up all night? Plush…
Yet even her oh-so-satisfied morning-after electronic anthem “Night” — “I woke up in Heaven in the morning! With a big smile upon my face!” she happily coos in the shimmering intro — conjures a sense of sweet intimacy rather than…well, straight-up fucking. (“Moist,” this is not.)
Unlike many of her prior records, Unbreakable contains hardly any lust or sweat at all. This is an album full of gratitude and life lessons, dedicated to the fans, friends and family who’ve been along for the journey from the beginning. (New Janet fans, this isn’t the Janet album to begin with.)
“I think a lot of people were thinking of it in the sense of ‘I’m unbreakable,’ but it’s more like after all I’m through, you’re still with me,” Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis said of the album’s namesake “Unbreakable,” comparing its sound to a Jackson 5 record. “It was about the bond that she has with her friends, with her family, with her faith.”
And it’s true — her musical family is deeply embedded in the album, especially her late brother, whose presence within this album is undeniable. Not only do certain songs bring the spirit and passion of socially conscious classics like “Earth Song” and “Black Or White” to mind, but Janet sounds exactly like Michael in moments, especially “The Great Forever.”
Her voice, the intonation and delivery — it’s all so very Michael. And if the liner notes credited Michael on the song, no one would question the validity. “It might sound strange to you / But what you think, it don’t mean nothing at all,” she fiercely declares on the swaggering, empowering kiss-off directed at the critics as she carries along her own path.
She doesn’t let the anger win out, though. “That empty heart, it will tear you apart / Because hate will only divide,” she scolds…until someone in the studio suddenly sneezes. “Oh, bless you!” she giggles into the mic. Life’s too serious. Thanks for the comedic relief, Miss Janet.
A veteran of life and love, Janet takes the opportunity to dole out advice at every opportunity, remaining the fearless leader of the Rhythm Nation — and, frequently, our friend.
She empathizes with us on the aching, heartfelt piano ballad “After You Fall,” in which her voice has never felt quite so comforting — even maternal. She educates us with “Life Lessons” and the spiritual “Black Eagle.”
“Do you know about the black eagle?” she purrs above a finger-snapping beat. Admittedly, I assumed it was a gay bar in Chelsea. But as it turns out, it’s a strong and powerful king of the sky — and the tender track is an ode to the ignored. “Every life matters, we all need to do better / A smile, a kind word, or extending a hand / Helping someone to feel human again.”
Considering the cultural climate, her words have never felt more necessary.
She rallies us with “Shoulda Known Better,” drifting along on a gentle electronic haze that suddenly erupts into a surging call to arms: “Ready for real solutions / We won’t accept excuses / We tolerate no abuses!” It’s one of the album’s most impressive moments, especially as she hits her stride two-thirds in: “It’s never the critic that counts, ’cause critics only wanna talk / While enlightened minds and hearts together make this world a better place.” Cue a trance breakdown out of nowhere, and you’ve got some truly next-level Jackson.
Once or twice, Janet briefly allows herself to escape this world for a lovey-dovey fantasy, as with the nostalgic “Dream Maker/Euphoria” and “Take Me Away,” a gorgeous highlight that soars across electric guitar licks and heaven-sent harmonies, providing one of the album’s most memorably dreamy choruses: “Take me away from here / To somewhere the air is clear / Take me away from here / Go somewhere that love has no fear…go!”
The millennial-sounding “2 B Loved,” too, is a Damita Jo era-esque early ’00s throwback, as Janet sweetly states her case for being a low maintenance lover. “See, I’m not the kind of girl you got to babysit, no / If you have things to do, I understand / Send me two dozen roses, I think that’s beautiful / But a single rose is so romantic,” she promises. Hey, I’m sold.
The record isn’t always quite so existential: “BURNITUP!” with Missy Elliott, is the album’s sole mindless dance floor foray co-crafted with Dem Jointz, as Janet hurriedly hits the floor “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” style for an uptempo ode to the DJ. While Missy provides the fun (“MAKEITWORK! MAKEITWORK! MAKEITWORK”), Miss Jackson provides the flames. It’s a short-lived burst of energy amid all the denser material, but a reminder that Miss Jackson’s still got it — y’know, if she wants to get it.
The thumping, DJ Mustard-like “Dammn Baby” — another Jointz joint, and one the album’s catchiest cuts — is a more lighthearted offering too and, as it turns out, the song from which Janet pulled her album teaser phrases, like the oft-tweeted “#ConversationsInACafe.” And watch out for that “I Get Lonely” breakdown interpolation!
In retrospect, it’s odd she didn’t kick off the campaign with this bouncy ode to staying fresh and following the beat of your own 808 drum. Release it as a single now, and watch ’em all go…dammmn, baby.
For the most part, though, Unbreakable doesn’t attempt to break new ground or stay consistent with trends — it’s just not her style. Left to her own devices, Janet takes the opportunity to look behind her shoulder while following the road ahead, as with the country-tinged “Well Traveled,” a hard-earned, slow-sauntering victory lap by a woman who’s seen and done it all.
“The only place in my life that I’ll miss is on my bucket list / It’s a place I don’t know,” she sings. “Wherever life takes me, I’m willing to go.”
Ever the optimist, Janet brings us to a hopeful closing with “Gon’ B Alright,” a joyous, rowdy finale full of loud horns and celebratory yelps. “We gon’ be alright!” the iconic entertainer reassures over and over. When Janet sings those words, you really do believe it.
Free from major label interference or embarrassing promotional campaigns (if anything, there was virtually no promo for this record), Unbreakable represents an artist unrestricted, entirely in her own lane — and with much more still left to say.
With hints of the introspection of The Velvet Rope and the socially conscious Rhythm Nation 1814, Unbreakable is one of the most message-driven, insightful records of Janet’s career. What the album lacks in the fierce dance floor anthems and sweat-drenched sex jams that defined a large chunk of her career, it makes up for in its thoughtfulness, perspective and ingenuity alongside permanent partners-in-crime Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, whose production remains as rich (plush) as ever.
In time, Janet’s only grown worldlier and wiser. And even between impassioned cries against injustice and hypocrisy, there’s an overwhelming sense of optimism, compassion and, above all, faith in Unbreakable, a body of work that comes directly from the soul.
Highlights: “Dammn Baby,” “The Great Forever,” “Shoulda Known Better,” “Take Me Away,” “Well Traveled,” “2 B Loved”
Unbreakable was released on October 2. (iTunes)