On the early morning of May 16, a little bit after midnight, while intoxicated at a party with friends, I received news on my iPad that Janet Jackson was back. Four months later, here enters “Unbreakable,” Jackson’s first album in seven years. Released independently on her own Rhythm Nation Records, “Unbreakable” became her historic seventh number-one album on the Billboard 200 as she performs to sold-out crowds on her current world tour.
The album is not just an invigorating and revitalizing experience of various musical genres. It’s more than a reunion of Jackson with her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. “Unbreakable” serves as a personal testament to the woman and artist who has endured and conquered. Jackson reflects both on her times and on where we stand as a world, exemplifying her most diverse and introspective material since 1997’s “The Velvet Rope.”I received news on my iPad that Janet Jackson was back. Click To Tweet
The opening title track is a dedication to her fans, beginning side one of the album. She sings, “I lived through my mistakes/It’s just a part of growing/And never for a single moment/Did I ever go without your love.” Jackson immediately channels her classic sound, infectious and inspiring R&B and pop. She sounds very much like brother Michael in his preteen years, opening the door to a fantastic return to music. It’s obvious she and her team wanted to craft an album away from contemporary patterns with a goal of marching to the beat of their own drum.
“BURNITUP!” allows Janet fans to take to the dance floor, a mixture of hip-hop, rock, and industrial influences guaranteed to work up a sweat. Its intro is reminiscent of three songs: Jackson’s “Miss You Much” and “Feedback,” and Michael’s “Dirty Diana.” Missy Elliott delivers incoherent and entertaining obnoxiousness during her brief appearance, reminding everyone she’s magical and that working with Jackson was a natural pairing. “Dammn Baby” is a notice served to all divas of the 2010s in both classic and modernized styles of Janet that she remains a force to be reckoned with. “The Great Forever,” which had been teased over the summer, has revealed itself to be in conversation with Michael’s “Leave Me Alone.” Jackson rarely composes songs about media hypocrisy and scrutiny, but here she offers the paparazzi an unbothered response to their criticisms of her personal life and her 2012 marriage to Qatari billionaire businessman Wissam al Mana, saying, “that empty hole in your heart/it will tear you apart/because hate can only divide.”She sounds very much like brother Michael in his preteen years. Click To Tweet
“Shoulda Known Better” reintroduces Jackson’s socially conscious stances, in light of recent attention to racism and police brutality. The lyrics “Part of the revolution/Ready for real solutions/We won’t accept excuses/We tolerate no abuses” showcase Jackson’s evolution from her idea of a rhythm nation over 25 years ago. At the end of this U2 and trance-themed anthem, she admits “I had this great epiphany/And Rhythm Nation was the dream/I guess next time I’ll know better.” “After You Fall” is a ballad accompanied by piano that provides a solemn introspection of Jackson’s tribulations, many which contributed to her artistic silence. “Broken Hearts Heal” is a soul-stirring tribute to Michael, promising to “Inshallah (God willing), see you in the next life,” lines that hint at a conversion to Islam. If Jackson is a Muslim, it reflects in her musical uprising and personal wisdom instead of a fundamental religious necessity pushed upon her fanbase.
“Night” is an electric house and dance jam. Play her 2008 top 20 dance hit “Rock With You” and these two compositions are sisters.
“No Sleeep” resurrects the 90s with quiet storm and adult contemporary vibes, and she brings in J. Cole to assist. It has become her longest-running number-one on Billboard’s adult R&B chart (8 weeks). While Cole helps to attract some of his millennial fans towards Jackson’s music, it is the solo version of this track that delicately slices the cake. “Dream Maker/Euphoria” begins the more personal second side. Suggesting a restructured take on Diana Ross’s cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” it also sounds like it could have been a standout song on Jackson’s 2006 album 20 Y.O., while “2 B Loved” sounds like a danceable tango in sync with El DeBarge’s “Second Chance.” “Take Me Away,” an earthy and escapade-tinged plea, testifies to Jackson’s life for the last three years, which has been largely spent away from the United States. “Promise” is a teasing interlude of Latin jazz, but can be heard in its entirety as a bonus track on Unbreakable’s Target exclusive edition.
On “Lessons Learned,” Jackson sings of a story of a woman in relationships with Rhythm Nation-like harmonies and “Black Eagle” exposes another perspective from her absence. The two-part song describes the strength and power of a black eagle, the vital symbol that represents this era of her life. It’s apparent that Jackson has been listening and attentive to social injustice from an intersectional view; she coos, “No, no more room number 4.” (Room number 4 is known as an interrogation room in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem where Palestinian children are scrutinized by police.) As the album begins to wind down, “Well Traveled” draws a great visualization of Jackson donning a cowgirl hat and boots and remembering on how much she’s accomplished, how she’s not afraid to embark on new directions. “Gon B Alright” is a gospel and funk salute to the musical legacy of her family and the Motown sound, where we’ve never heard this side of her before. It is celebration of life, rejoicing in victories, and assurance that despite darkness, one can be “Unbreakable.”
The Janet Jackson of today now holds control of the Jackson family legacy. Her voice is stronger than ever and still supplies the warmth we’ve always known. She is more reserved, but remains sensual and confident in her sexuality. She recently scored her first nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an induction long overdue. While it took seven years for a new album, let’s give her credit, shall we? Jackson worked non-stop for over two years in films, touring, and philanthropy after the King of Pop’s death before disappearing into private life with her husband. As she approaches her 50th birthday next year, it’s wonderful to see an artist aging gracefully, creating and performing on her own terms, remaining youthful, and enjoying being herself. Welcome back, Ms. Jackson.The Janet Jackson of today now holds control of the Jackson family legacy. Click To Tweet
And now, back to this talk-show host who suggested a Vegas residency and that there wouldn’t be a number-one album. Wendy Williams, what’s good?