Janet Jackson is a walking superlative. She can dance routines into legend, infect with her angelic lilt, and preach social ills through Sly and the Family Stone-sampling anthems. An added dose of ambition turns her art into spectacle. The twist is how all of that isn’t what’s at the core of her longevity. It’s her self-awareness, or the search of it. Jackson didn’t become great until she teamed up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and proclaimed she was Janet rather than just a Jackson. Janet the entertainer was an extension of Janet the person; the former followed her around as she was working through sexual and emotional revolutions in the ‘90s.
Super Bowl XXXVIII kickstarted Jackson’s fall from feminist superhero to grossly under-appreciated legend. While that’s cited as a mortal wound, it doesn’t erase how 2006’s 20 Y.O. and 2008’s Discipline were misfires, trading heart for plastic. Unbreakable lets us back into Jackson’s head in a way that doesn’t quite feel like a “comeback.” That term refers to boisterous, I’m-here-like-I-never-left statements. But like Jackson herself notes on the opening title track, it’s been a while. The following song, “BURNITUP!”, plays like an innocuous dance jam diminished half a point by Missy Elliott’s feline impersonation. As an opening salvo, it kicks in the door to Jackson’s mind. Unbreakable is laced with tempered optimism and nostalgia (the “BURNITUP!” intro isn’t unlike “Miss You Much”; Jackson’s giggles haven’t aged). But rather than a comeback, the album plays like a nighttime invitation from a long-absent acquaintance.
A big reason for the atmosphere is how Jackson is again featured as this oxymoron of vulnerability and confidence. She isn’t too concerned with adapting to 2015; the majority of Jimmy Jam and Lewis’s production sounds within a hop of their work on 1997’s The Velvet Rope. The duo’s reunion with Jackson is exceptional whether they’re dishing a pulsating storm on “No Sleeep” or augmenting “Night” with arena rock sensibilities. That they’re able to collaborate on this level despite a seven-year hiatus is further proof that what happened in 1985 was nothing short of kismet.
Unbreakable is structured as a double-sided album, splitting itself between “No Sleeep” and “Dream Maker / Euphoria”. But what’s more notable is that it peaks how a Jackson-in-her-prime album would. Its thrills double as catharsis. “Shoulda Known Better” rides atop electro-dance twitches and synthesizers to reach euphoria. But it’s an ephemeral high. “Rhythm Nation” was a determinist’s anthem 26 years ago. Here, it’s a poignant reminder that the issues it was designed to march against still exist: “I had this great epiphany/ And rhythm nation was the dream/ I guess next time I’ll know better.” “Broken Hearts Heal”, a sweet tribute to her late brother Michael, is followed up with infectious jubilation on “Night”. After the nighttime restraint of “No Sleeep”, “Dream Maker / Euphoria” kicks off side two with a Smokey Robinson-like cry before settling into a psychedelic, call-and-response groove.
The album’s movements flow like natural metamorphosis rather than wild swings thanks to Jackson’s voice. Unbreakable finds her continuously rediscovering new crevices in her vocal range. It leads to an emotive performance: how she softly pants with yearning on “Lessons Learned”, how her airiness adds an extra velvet layer to the breakdown on “Dammn Baby”, how its fragility gives “After You Fall” a sense of empathy. For someone who’s known to be secretive, Unbreakable is another album that shines because of how she lets us in.
Unbreakable ends perhaps a bit too tidily with “Well Traveled” and “Gon B’ Alright”, the latter a gospel-flavored anthem in the key of Sly and the Family Stone. But they barely dent her best effort since The Velvet Rope. Janet the entertainer belongs to time. Janet the person is here, and she’s a compelling force.
Essential Tracks: “Shoulda Known Better”, “Dream Maker / Euphoria”, and “No Sleeep”