Blame the Super Bowl (and Justin Timberlake, for throwing her under the bus and walking away from the scandal a pop megastar), or lackluster album releases afterwards, or standard industry racism and sexism (throw in Jackson-ism for good measure), but Janet Jackson hasn’t gotten her fair shake in the canonization of 80s and 90s pop legends. Among women, Mariah, Madonna, and Whitney frequently dominate the conversation, which threatens the youngest Jackson with the most dangerous word in pop culture: irrelevance.
Listening to Unbreakable, her first studio album in seven years, you get the feeling Janet simply doesn’t care. Her contemporaries may be concerned with staying hip and cool to an industry trained to ignored them, but Janet cares not for such trifling matters. Her time away has been marked by both great happiness (here marriage to a Qatari billionaire) and sorrow (the death of brother/legend Michael and its subsequent media circus), and Unbreakable is her opportunity to take stock of it all.
The result is a contemplative but joyous effort that easily eclipses her last three studio efforts and even challenges All For You as her best album since the turn of the millennium. Even though eighteen years separate Unbreakable and 1997’s magnum opus The Velvet Rope, there is a surprising, welcome kinship between them. MJ tribute “Broken Hearts Heal” and “Shoulda Known Better”, a restrained slice of EDM euphoria, recall the danceable, hopeful reflection of “Together Again”, while the trap-tastic “Dammn Baby” directly references the classic “I Get Lonely”. 1998’s R&B thump “Go Deep” sees a Disclosure-esque update in the form of club (and remix) ready “Night”. Vulnerability and openness shade themes like love, loss, disappointment, and romance, although her responses are more reflective. She sadly but resolutely chides her own naïveté of building her ideal “rhythm nation” on “Shoulda Known Better”, and coolly bites back against the rabid interest in her love life on “The Great Forever”. “Lessons Learned” meditates on the co-dependency that drives an abusive relationship, a significant departure from the ferocious rage against domestic violence 1997’s “What About”. Where The Velvet Rope was a deep dive into the darkest of emotions and desires, Unbreakable is coming back up for air. It’s almost a perfect sequel. Janet, after years of a leading a generation, settles into the role of world-wise mentor with the same youthful aplomb that has become her trademark. She’s weathered the storms of being a pop titan, and has come through to the other side infinitely happier.
She sounds it, too; Unbreakable is her most vocally diverse work, probably since 1993’s Janet. She is almost fearless in her deliveries, replacing the soft baby coos with growls on songs like funky closer “Gon’ B Alright”, and the whispers with full-throated belts. She’s even incorporated some of her Michael’s vocal ticks and made them her own. Janet sounds like a woman completely free from expectations, utterly unbothered by current pop trends and only interested in the “conversation in a cafe” she’s been teasing all summer. Produced by returning longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet refreshingly doesn’t toe the line for Top 40 success, as the already-classic lead single “No Sleeep” previewed some months ago. However, a better pop world would have current single “BURNITUP!”, “Take Me Away” and the aforementioned highlights “Night” and “Shoulda Known Better” become radio staples well into the 2017 Grammy season.
Of course, that might just be the point. Janet has been long overdue for a comeback, not just from 2008’s dismal Discipline, but from 2004’s Super Bowl scandal that effectively ended her pop career. Unlike her immediate contemporaries, Janet seems perfectly content without chart glory or pop culture relevance, and there is nothing more attractive to the public than something unattainable. Maybe radio programmers and famously fickle music fans will buy into a happily aloof Ms Jackson and restore her to her rightful place atop of pop’s pecking order.
Janet seems prepared for either renewed pop glory or a swan song, as the wonderfully and aptly-titled “Well-Traveled” intimates. Whatever ever comes next, she’s ready for it with an infectiously optimistic outlook. It is more than well-earned.