Oh Ms Jackson, what have you done for us lately?
If we’re talking about producing amazing pop songs that have influenced the likes of contemporary artists such as Tinashe, Ciara, Robyn and Kelela, well, not that much. Seven years have passed since Janet Jackson’s last album, the mediocre Discipline, and arguably her last cohesive and essential album Velvet Rope was released in 1997.
Whethever or not you enjoy Unbreakable will depend on how you like your Janet. It’s her 11th album and this collection of songs is her most well thought out in some time and her most mature, nuanced and downbeat, at least in tempo, of her career. It also doesn’t feature a meandering and unstructured ‘sex jam’ which had become a mainstay of her last six or seven releases, and for that at least we must be grateful.
Unbreakable is split into two ‘sides’, the first includes the majority of the album’s dance tracks and is more frivolous in tone generally, whilst the second is more introspective with a strong socially conscious ‘voice’ and sonically makes small but significant tweaks to Jackson’s usual musical choices.
Initially it’s the more lustrous first half that makes the most impact but there is a restraint and intricacy in the less conventional R&B tracks that reward repeated listens. The opening songs fall over themselves in an attempt to reconnect Jackson fans to the dance-pop queen of old but it’s only on the slippery Disclosure-like ‘Dammn Baby’ that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis create a song that’s almost worthy of Jackson’s mighty discography.
Jam and Lewis along with Jackson not only created towering, near overwhelmingly strong songs (‘Love Will Never Do (Without You)’, ‘Miss You Much’, ‘When I Think Of You’, ‘Together Again’) but they cemented an actual wall-of-sound signature that was immediately recognisable as theirs and endured for almost a decade.
The couple reunite with Jackson on Unbreakable, producing and co-writing the majority of the album, but a return to this ‘sound’, something many may have excitedly anticipated, is not forthcoming. The joyful ‘Night’ for example, which is the only other dance track proper here, is another good song but demonstrates how the three can still make club music that is relevant without chasing trends or relying on tricks from the past.
Lead single ‘No Sleeep’ is in many ways the most archetypal Janet Jackson song on Unbreakable. A steady mid tempo, slinky and sensual R&B groove that falls somewhere between ‘Let’s Wait Awhile’ ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’ and ‘Got Till It’s Gone’, it sounds modern and refined whilst clearing acknowledging Jackson’s musical heritage and enduring influence.
‘No Sleeep’ is the last song on the album’s more optimistic first half and track titles like the country-tinged ‘Lessons Learned’ and ‘Well Travelled’ are an indication of Jackson’s world-weary, but not morose, current outlook.
‘Black Eagle’ is lyrically Unbreakable‘s most worthy song and could have gone horribly wrong as an over-earnest ode to world peace. With its flickering bass bombs, finger clicks and unexpected minor-key change in the final part of the track, the spareness and subtlety of the sound stage allows Jackson to sing, ‘Helping someone to feel human again, if we never start it could be you on the other end,’ and for her to still convey a poignant sincerity.
As moving as this may be, six or so variations on a similar theme can drag, and it’s only on the psychedelic Motown-stomp of final song ‘Gon’ B Alright’ that Jackson reconnects to the pop sensibilities which many will be desperate by this point to hear.
The most wistful line on the album comes almost as a lament at the end of the quiet – loud ‘Shoulda Known Better’ gives us: ‘I had this great epiphany and Rhythm Nation was the dream, I guess next time I’ll know better.’
As somebody who bought Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989 I can also concur that Jackson’s plea for social justice and an end to racism and homophobia voiced through music, as corny as it may have sounded, has not been achieved to anywhere near the degree we may have hoped some 27 years later. This seems to be the main motivation behind 2015’s Janet Jackson – the naivety of just hoping that things will change through positive thinking and, in Rhythm Nation‘s case, amazing songs, has dissipated.
Unbreakable is Jackson’s acceptance of the world now and how she can function as an artist within it.