Janet Jackson Honors Loyal Fans, and Herself, On ‘Unbreakable’
"It's been awhile, lots to talk about...I'm glad you're still here," Janet Jackson says in the spoken-word outro to "Unbreakable," the opening title track on her first album in seven years. She's talking to her fans, but as in other moments throughout the album, she could also be addressing a lover (either her real-life husband or a figurative stand-in like album guest J. Cole), a higher power, or even her Unbreakable production partners and longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The duo had no hand in Janet's previous album, 2008's Discipline, and their reunion is a largely fruitful one on Unbreakable, which is far more introspective than her bangers-heavy, critically divisive previous release.
I can't be the only longtime Janet fan who met the album's rollout with a mixture of excitement and trepidation: 7 years is a long time, and the debut "No Sleeep" single was chill-bordering-on-soporific. The title track is lovely and soulful, but safe — and while a good Janet record certainly doesn't require the baldly sexual lyrics of an "All For You" or a "Warmth," is there even a point to one that's fully buttoned-up?
Happily, the first two singles are far from the album's most interesting efforts.
"BURNITUP!" affirms two truths: 1. Janet's obsession with creative spelling and punctuation will never die, and 2. a little Missy Elliott makes everything better, as Missy also proved this past February in the Super Bowl halftime show.
"Dammn Baby" is a DJ Mustard-esque confection that leads into album standout "The Great Forever." She sings on the bridge, "what you think, it don't mean nothing at all," presumably about her romantic choices, but it could also be interpreted as referring to religion? Either way, she keeps things Janet-style silly with an "achoo!" in the middle. It also must be mentioned that the first verse of the song is one of several moments on the album in which her vocals bear a striking similarity to those of her late brother Michael.
Unbreakable is the first album Janet's recorded since Michael's death, and she gives him a gorgeous tribute with "Broken Hearts Heal." It's a sunny, disco-inflected bop in the vein of the Stevie Wonder's "All I Do," and, of course, MJ himself.
"Shoulda Known Better" stops just short of Top 40 EDM, and while it alludes to an iconic hit and the disappointment of a mission unfulfilled ("I had this great epiphany, and Rhythm Nation was the dream/ I guess next time I'll know better") it's ultimately too drenched in platitudes to fully hit. "Take Me Away" feels like something that another pop singer may have done a few years back, when dance was just heating up the charts — but the preceding song, "2 B Loved," sounds like classic Janet, and at less than three minutes leaves the listening wanting more in the best way possible.
Unbreakable's no epic at 17 tracks, but it's a healthy length. The momentum sags somewhere between around the bossa nova "Promise" interlude and the joyful, Stevie-meets-the Jackson 5 "Gon' Be Alright" closer. The tracks in between are too strong to be dismissed as filler — "Lessons Learned" is a well-spun tale of a toxic, codependent relationship, and "Black Eagle" is a worthy meditation too. The choice to string these slower numbers together was a conscious one, ostensibly meant to forge peaks and valleys within the album experience, though it makes the pacing feel a bit bottom-heavy.
Ultimately, though, "heavy" isn't a word that should be associated with Janet's 11th album, despite the sometimes weighty subjects she tackles to varying degrees of lyrical success. Unbreakable is a buoyant and worthy re-entry into the current pop landscape for Jackson, with production that takes cues from what's on-trend without sounding like it's glomming on in order to attract younger, hipper listeners. Janet expresses gratitude several times throughout the release, and the feeling is definitely mutual.
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