“Hello. It’s been awhile. Lots to talk about. I’m glad you’re still here. I hope you enjoy.”
— Janet Jackson (“Unbreakable”)
“I think there’s a desperation to a lot of the older divas. They’ve got to hit it out of the park. With Janet, if she doesn’t put out a cross-format smash right out of the box, people think it isn’t a success, but that’s not it. This was completely calculated.”
— Jon Cohen, EVP of Recorded Music at BMG US regarding comeback single “No Sleeep”, Billboard (23 July 2015)
At this point in her life, Janet Jackson owes us nothing.
After spending the first 15 years of her career topping charts, selling out stadiums, and becoming one of the most reliable hitmakers and prominent icons in all of pop music, Jackson spent most of the 2000s doing something we didn’t even think was possible: she got boring. Following the astonishing success of 2001’s effervescent All For You, Jackson’s next two efforts, 2004’s Damita Jo and the career nadir that was 2006’s 20 Y.O., tried their best to recreate All For You‘s playful vibes but ended up feeling hollow, crass, and painfully uninspired. Her ever-devout fans did their best to muster up their enthusiasm, but all of the goodwill that Jackson had garnered over the years evaporated at a fast pace, and to put that into perspective, consider this: without exception, every single charting song Janet released between 1986 and 2001 made its way into the US Top 40, an astonishing feat for any artist.
That streak was broken by Damita Jo, and by the time she moved to Island Records for 2008’s solid-but-not-spectacular Discipline, she even her ditched longtime collaborators and musical muses Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in favor of a smorgasbord of hot-at-the-moment beatmakers, who, despite giving it their all, failed to introduce Jackson to a new audience, resulting in her lowest-selling record since her “non-canon” LPs that predated 1986’s Control. Since then, she lambasted Island for the poor promotion that Discipline received, coped with the death of brother Michael, inexplicably received flak for marrying a Qatari billionaire in 2012, and watched as the sounds and styles she used in ruling the pop landscape got supplanted by the likes of Gaga, Katy, Rihanna, and Taylor, thriving in a world where even mentioning the name Britney Spears feels passé.
Thus, when Unbreakable was announced in the middle of 2015, marking Jackson’s eleventh overall album and first in seven years, not many people were sure what to expect. Would Jackson continue her streak of hyper-sexualized lyricism or move towards something more meaningful? Would she stick to her distinct R&B/dance style or shamelessly hunt down another batch of producers-du-jour? And, most pressingly, following her streak of mixed-bag full-lengths since All For You, would this new album be any good?
“I lived through my mistakes / It’s just a part of growing,” Jackson declares, as if acknowledging her recent efforts on Unbreakable‘s opening title track, which uses a cut-up soul sample to provide a solid mid-tempo groove, something that is all well and good until those multi-layered vocal harmonies come in during the chorus and we’re instantly transplanted back to Janet of old, her familiar coo still sounding remarkably fresh after all this time. Some age has crept in to her voice, rendering it a bit thinner, but Jackson was never known for her vocal histrionics and often made up for this fact by double- and quadruple-tracking herself. Here, instead of pushing through her crumbling high-end like Mariah has on her less-than-stellar recent discs, Jackson instead places her voice front and center, often recreating her signature stylings, but never once shying away from her now-smoky cadence, often weaponizing it for sultry effect (which still serves as a noted contrast to Missy Elliott’s guest spot on intended club jam “BURNITUP!” wherein she screams all her verses at you).
Musically, the album feels lively and fresh, as the reunited-at-last trifecta of Jackson, Jam and Lewis eschew trendy EDM stylings in favor of more “classic” Janet characteristics, building pleasing, easily-accessible grooves out of the Minneapolis Sound-indebted template that Jam and Lewis have used for most of their lives. Sometimes they use tracks like “Night” to reference this explicitly, giving that song a jazzy backend, which immediately harkens back to the duo’s tenure in Morris Day and the Time. The excellent and not-misspelled “Dammn Baby” betters DJ Mustard as his own low-end synth game — even if that breakdown is pure Janet. Meanwhile, the slinky bounce of “2 B Loved” wouldn’t sound too out-of-place on All For You. In many ways, these descriptions may sound like pure fan-service, but with Jackson and co. approaching this specific kind of vibe nearly 10 years removed since their last outing, everyone seems excited to go back to that unique energy they were able to replicate with ease back in the ’80s and ’90s.
Yet a couple breezy club tracks do not a great album make, which is in part why Unbreakable‘s lyrics prove to be simultaneously the album’s blandest feature and also its most unique element. During the more uptempo cuts like “BURNITUP!” and “Dammn Baby”, Jackson’s musings never rise above generic will.i.am-styled vagueries, where she instructs the listener to at one point “Bang bang ya gon’ gon’ get it” and also encourages the DJ to “drop that track and turn it up”. While yes, these are verses for dance numbers, so poetry is by no means required, one still wishes that Jackson tried to say at least something with these cuts, even if she’s wisely moved away from the too-pornographic diary entries that sometimes marred her best efforts.
In their place, however, is a mix of ballads and mid-range numbers that instead speak fondly of devotion and takes on her haters with a venom we have rarely seen from her. On the blacklight banger (and the second-best song on the album) “The Great Forever”, Jackson absolutely rips apart those in the paparazzi and commenters who took issue with her marriage to Wissam Al Mana, singing:
“If you wrong would you admit it?
And take the head up under the lights
Use your expert criticism
Then maybe get a life
Don’t like seeing people happy
Is it jealousy or personal?
’cause I don’t see why loving someone
Or what I do seem so radical to you”
The lovely piano ballad “After You Fall” follows shortly after and could also be construed as a love-letter to her hubby, reading as one of the quietest, most meditative moments we’ve ever heard from the diva. Indeed, Unbreakable‘s surprises are modest but worthwhile, and while Jackson is still flirty and fun at times, she can still show off her quirky side as well, like during the pulsing, dramatic dance-rock explosion that is “Take Me Away” (the album’s best song by a mile), wherein a very serious but energetic production engages you so much that the line “This silly heart of mine / Lost to a cutie-pie” flies by with little notice.
At other points, however, Jackson strives for profundity but lacks the specifics needed to make an effective point. The acoustic lament “Lessons Learned” is about a defective codependent relationship, but outside of lines like “he’s not himself when that record comes on”, no tangible conflict is spelled out, leaving the listener more puzzled than moved. “Shoulda Known Better”, meanwhile, has echoes of Rhythm Nation‘s political screed “Livin’ in a World (They Didn’t Make)” with rhymes like “A baby girl without a home / Tragedy’s reign left her alone” painting a sad picture but, again, we’re given no context for such misfortune, rendering Jackson’s confession that she “just can’t feel casual about casualties” as diminutive and blunt.
Yet by the time the album’s last two cuts unfold — one (“Well Traveled”) a standard radio anthem with “hey ho” vocals that feel like the album’s biggest commercial concession; the other (“Gon’ B Alright”) a full-bore slice ’60s psych-pop revisionism that explodes with color — we as listeners are left a bit stunned by what we just experienced: even when its lyrics made a turn for the bland, Unbreakable nonetheless feels like the liveliest, freshest album we’ve received from Miss Janet in nearly 15 years, and one that feels like a genuine step forward for her artistically.
With iconic albums like Control and The Velvet Rope ensuring her status as a legend, Janet Jackson owes us nothing. The fact that she took the time to give us a document as fascinating and damn-near satisfying as Unbreakable is nothing short of a minor miracle, proving that maybe she was right all along: this really is all for you.