In May, we asked the question “is Janet Jackson readying a modern day Rhythm Nation?” Five months later, we have our answer.
A full week has passed since Janet Jackson dropped her epic comeback album Unbreakable. The reviews, the fan reactions, have all been superb. However, we here at EST. 1997 like to go a little deeper and thus opted to delay our review to live with the album a little. But the wait is over; we have a lot to talk about, Ms. Jackson.
Before the release of “No Sleeep,” Janet fans were in the dark. We had no idea what to expect from Janet. Her last two albums, 20 Y.O. and Discipline, were not on that classic Janet Jackson level. Her input was limited on Discipline; it was the first time she did not co-write or co-produce on one of her albums since the pre-Control albums. Not only that, but it was the first time since Control that Janet didn’t work with her longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. On 20 Y.O., they were present on nearly every track but Janet’s then-boyfriend Jermaine Dupri was the lead producer on 7 of the 11 songs. Needless to say, that formula wasn’t working out. Enter “No Sleeep.”
With “No Sleeep,” Janet made it very clear that she rediscovered that magic formula. Working with Jam and Lewis again, Janet crafted one of her most exquisite slow jams to date. It harkened back to the 90s, emphasized her strengths, reminded fans of nostalgic Janet while still managing to sound fresh. Janet was back; but in a very subtle way. Subtlety is an ever-present theme on Unbreakable. Even the promotion of the album has been handled as such.
The set opens with the impeccable title track that kicks things off by showcasing the many elements that comprise the multifaceted icon that is Janet Jackson. She opens the song, and thus the album, with a dedication to her fans. She welcomes us to this very personal body of work – not since 1997’s The Velvet Rope has Janet been this candid – via a spoken word outro at the end of the song: “It’s been a while,” she admits, “Lots to talk about.” And so, it begins, and so, the good ol’ Janet is back. It’s almost like a welcome to the pages of her 7-year long diary.
From the introductory moment that is “Unbreakable,” Jan picks up the pace with the Missy Elliott-assisted “BURNITUP!” On this fiery uptempo, Ms. Jackson reminds listeners that she can still deliver a track to burn up the dance floor and make us dance. The theme continues on “Dammn Baby,” a track which seems to be just another dance diddy but in reality is much more. Within the Jackonese-laden verses, Janet delivers some rather biting and revealing lyrics. She uncovers the #ConversationsInACafe mystery, singing “A brand new movement that began with a conversation in a cafe,” seemingly referring to the Unbreakable album concept: that the many bonds of love in her life are just that – unbreakable. She also throws a bit of shade, declaring that she is an original and unafraid to move out of the “stuck” lane others seem to be in. Let them know, Ms. Jackson.
Moving right along, Janet wades right into the heavier material. On “The Great Forever,” a fierce, strut-worthy uptempo, Janet addresses her haters and criticisms of her marriage to Wissam Al Mana. Thinly veiled shade, “The Great Forever” chides naysayers for their negativity and encourages said audience to have a more positive outlook on life. Janet declares, “I’m living my life, the way that I hope is leading me to the great forever.” She offers a word of advice during the bridge, singing, “That empty hole in your heart, it will tear you apart, because hate will only divide.” With a simple but effective and personal message, this is the Janet Jackson we all fell in love with. “The Great Forever” is both infectious and carries a deeper meaning.
Such expectations are exceeded on the pop/house ballad “Shoulda Known Better.” One of the most poignant moments on the album, the song finds Janet commenting on current events in society. She, albeit subtly, touches on issues of racism, inequality and the media bias; among other things. She demands resolutions and declares herself part of the revolution. She closes the track singing, “I had a great epiphany, and Rhythm Nation was that dream, I guess next time I’ll know better.” Here, she acknowledges that in the 26 years since she released the iconic, socially-conscious Rhythm Nation album, not much has changed – that she should’ve known better.
The next cut is a stripped down ballad, “After You Fall.” The track is simply stunning; Janet’s vocal talent is front and center; she delivers a moving, emotive vocal performance. While it is one of the slower moments on the album that you’ll likely gloss over on a casual listen, this gem deserves your attention. However, one track that surely won’t fail to grab your attention is the loving dedication to her brother on “Broken Hearts Heal.” Janet reminisces on her childhood with Michael on this bop that recalls Michael in its musicality as much as in its lyrics. From the finger snaps, the energetic ad-libs, to the overall vibe of the song, Janet paid tribute to her brother in the best way – musically – and no one could do it better. She sings about their sister-brother bond lovingly, ending the song with a hopeful “till the next life, inshallah” – which means, “God willing,” they’ll be together again.
Next comes one of the album’s best transition moments. Anyone who’s ever listened to a Janet Jackson album knows that they are generally cohesive bodies of work that are united through the clever use of musical and thematic organization, transitions, and the occasional interlude. On Unbreakable, Janet’s trademark interludes are noticeably absent. However, she still manages to weave the tracks together almost seamlessly. “Night” follows “Broken Hearts Heal” and is a perfect bridge to the J. Cole-assisted “No Sleeep.” The house inspired cut is simple but infectious and features an instrumental jam sessions mid-track that is sure to have you grooving. It ends with the entrance of a rain storm that leads directly into the quiet storm “No Sleeep” to end “Side 1” of Unbreakable.
Side 2 begins with “Dream Maker/Euphoria,” assumedly after she awakes from a long session of, ehem, “No Sleeep.” The trio of “Night,” “No Sleeep,” and “Dream Maker/Euphoria” are the closest Janet comes to baby making music on this album. Again, subtlety seems key for Ms. Jackson these days. Or, perhaps, its out of respect of her (Muslim) husband. Regardless, it’s not like she’s left much territory uncovered in that area, anyway. “Dream Maker/Euphoria” recalls, well, 70’s Michael Jackson (he actually had a song called “Euphoria” in 1973) or even Diana Ross and is a welcomed soulful cut on this rather varied set. More or less its counterpart, “2 B Loved” is a quick, less-than-3-minute long nondescript bop. The message is simple, the song is simple, and before you blink an eye, it’s over …and onto far better material.
“Take Me Away” is the perfect driving song. It recalls the breezy vibe of All For You‘s “Someone to Call My Lover” – it just feels good. Her vocals are effervescent and the melody is inviting. Beware, though, it may make you want to embark on a road trip (and/or fall in love, whatever). Though, perhaps, a deeper meaning lies behind “Take Me Away.” It is followed by the album’s lone (official) interlude, “Promise” (the gorgeous full track can be found as a bonus on the Target edition), which has a dark, Latin-inspired vibe. She asks, “who can tell you, the promise of you?” which leads directly into a series of tracks that would qualify for placement on 1997’s The Velvet Rope due to their lyrical content and superb quality.
“Lessons Learned” embarks on a narrative akin to The Velvet Rope’s “What About” and sounds equally inspired by it and that album’s closer, “Special.” Here, Janet plays third person narrator for a story of domestic abuse (whether it is verbal, physical, or mental is unclear) and paints the picture of a love gone wrong, but perhaps the protagonist has yet to truly learn her lesson. It’s parallels to “What About?” are numerous: the narration, the dialogue, and the subject matter. However, while “What About?” was in the first person, “Lessons Learned” seems to find Janet on the outside looking in. “Black Eagle” follows and you almost can’t tell where one song ends and the other begins, until, of course, Janet reappears asking, “Do you know about the black eagle?”
“Black Eagle” is, of course, a symbol, but for what? It could be a parallel to the recent plight of African Americans in the United States; later in the track, she does sing, “every life matters, we all need to do better.” However, she also sings “no, no more room number four,” which is a reference to “an interrogation room in the Russian Compound – the main Israeli police office in Jerusalem – where Palestinian Jerusalem residents, including children, are investigated” (RoomNo4.org). Or, perhaps, she’s comparing recent events in America to those of Room No. 4. Either way, the message is clear: “you’ll never know, until you’ve been there” and “we all need to do better.” Once the voice of a generation, Jackson rekindles that fire and commands us to make a change.
Following the message of “Black Eagle” is a more reflective Janet, singing about how she’s “Well Traveled” – no, she’s not bragging about having traveled across the globe. She is using the phrase a metaphor for how much she has grown throughout the years. While some of that may be in part due to her actual travels, she is merely displaying her gratefulness for all that she’s experienced. With that in mind, she closes the album with the notion that she, that we, “Gon B’ Alright.” The album closer is a carefree, funky, soulful piece that just feels organic. It sounds as though she recorded a live performance in the studio. Not only that, but it echoes similar sentiments of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and one can’t help but wonder why Janet didn’t think to include the other popular, socially conscious hip-hop star on this one. It’s quite alright, though, because Janet needs no one’s help to close out this near perfect set. “Gon’ B’ Alright” is sure to get listeners up and moving right over to the stereo to hit replay on Unbreakable.
It still seems surreal that Janet Jackson has finally released new music after so long. What is even more impressive is the fact that it is undoubtedly her best work since 1997’s The Velvet Rope. While naysayers, critics, and plain old haters had certainly written her off post-Superbowl, Janet proved them all wrong with the evident artistic rebirth on Unbreakable. She, alongside Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, has crafted a diverse, fresh, and poignant album. She has once again started numerous conversations. She paid tribute to her brother through song and multiple musical nods to him throughout the album. She has left her millions of fans worldwide floored by the content of this album. She has put the foot in the mouths of the critics; they can’t help but praise the album. She has reasserted her supreme status.
Anyone who has ever truly been a fan of Janet’s would never have lost faith, though. She has always been Unbreakable, and our love for her is, too. With the release of this album, she cements that fact. From this point on her status as not only a legendary icon, but also a musical genius, is unquestionably unbreakable.