Once upon a time Janet Jackson was the mightiest pop star there ever was. In the heady days of the late 80s and early 90s, she ruled the pop charts with an iron fist. She always seemed just shy of usurping the thrones of brother Michael and Madonna, but few artists can claim the kind of consistency that Jackson enjoyed during her salad days – a thrilling, seemingly unending list of top ten hit singles and multi-platinum album smash after multi-platinum album smash. But by the 2010s, Jackson’s schtick got tired, and she was overshadowed by Britney, Rihanna, and Taylor. People stopped buying her records and it looked like Janet Jackson, Pop Star was no longer.
But Unbreakable – the pop diva’s 11th studio effort and her first on her own independent label (yup, these are the times when megastars like Jackson have become indie artists) – works to break up the string of failures Jackson racked up since the underwhelming Damita Jo (2004), which was followed by the equally unsuccessful 20 Y.O. two years later, and the final, aforementioned Discipline (2008) which closes out the most uninspiring trilogy in pop music. Unbreakable is the kind of record Michael Jackson would’ve made late in his career – a record made by an artist with something to prove. Janet Jackson has a lot to prove – namely that she still has the pop chops.
And for the most part, Unbreakable works as a fitting and appropriate comeback for an artist that has been absent for far too long. Jackson seems to have learned her lesson from the failures of her previous albums, because the mistakes that she committed on those releases are thankfully MIA on Unbreakable. The most startling change is Jackson’s subject matter. Since 1993, Jackson has been preoccupied by all things carnal. Though janet. (1993) and The Velvet Rope (1997) were highly sexually-charged albums, the music was brilliant and the lyrics reflected a woman finding herself sexually and enjoying her growth as a sexual being. Unfortunately, she quickly confused sexuality with crassness and her subsequent releases often felt smutty and one-note. On Unbreakable, Jackson jettisons the sex talk (for the most part) to take on other issues: namely, aging, her place in pop music, social justice, and love. It’s the kind of record Janet fans have been salivating for – the kind of record we were waiting for.
Reteaming with her musical kindred spirits Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson has put together a strong, solid set of tunes that showcase a satisfyingly mature and developing artist. She opens the album with the title track, an anthematic R&B – joyfully retro number, which pays tribute to Jackson’s longtime fans. “Burnitup!” is a fantastic dance song that reunited the singer with Missy Elliott, another music legend that has been gone for too long. The song is sounds like classic Janet Jackson, and Elliott shows that her hiatus hasn’t slowed down her rhyming skills. “Dammn Baby” is a wonderful slice of Minneapolis funk that recalls Jackson’s Control days. “The Great Forever” is a swinging number with a chugging beat and catchy hook.
In fact, all of the songs are catchy – which just goes to show just how Jackson’s talent for pop hooks is evergreen. Because she’s working with such disciplined producers like Jam and Lewis, the songs are immaculately crafted. So that even a by-the-numbers tune like “Shoulda Known Better” – an EDM banger – is still a faultless piece of filler pop.
But looking back at Jackson’s work, what was best was when she and her producers took risks with her sound. In the past, she played with disparate musical styles like jazz, opera, rock, and house. On Unbreakable, the songs reflect that kind of sonic ambition and diversity. The album’s brightest spot is one of the most uncharacteristic numbers, “Gon’ B Alright,” a swirling, rollicking number that would do Sly & The Family Stone or James Brown proud. It’s a tight-fisted, rocking funk n roll number with Jackson belting in an appealing lower register.
Speaking of Jackson’s vocals – on all of her albums, Jackson’s voice has been a point of contention. She’s got a good voice – a pretty, sweet croon. But it’s wafer thin and very airy. On the dance numbers, it’s fine because her producers create wall-to-wall Janet Jackson vocals – layering what feels like thousands of Janet Jacksons to give her slip of a voice much needed oomph. Unfortunately, on her ballads, Jackson’s limitations as a vocalist are amplified – often her voice is magnified so much that it takes on an almost surreal, synthetic feel – this is true with the piano ballad “After You Fall,” which feels as if Jackson had a microphone surgically inserted into her throat. Also, the album’s lead single “No Sleeep” feels, well, sleepy – with Jackson’s vocals sounding indecipherable and indistinct over the pillowy synths. In fact, because Unbreakable‘s sequencing often groups the slower numbers together, the energy of the record dips at times, making the ballads bleed into each other.
But these are minor quibbles, because Unbreakable is remarkable in the savvy way in which it alludes to a wide variety of styles in popular music. Most modern pop albums work as vehicles for a clutch of hit singles. Jackson’s beyond that now. And because she’s no longer beholden to a fat, multi-million dollar record deal, she can experiment a little more, indulging in an artier, riskier direction. That isn’t to say that Jackson and company aren’t trying to craft her next hit single – but the desperation that stunk up Damita Jo, 20 Y.O., and Discipline is gone now. Instead, the Jackson of Unbreakable is calm, steady, and confident.