Unbreakable * Janet Jackson * Pop/R&B * October 2, 2015
Note: This is a review for the physical copy of the album. The single and remix versions of No Sleeep are not included.
There is a weird misconception about Janet Jackson’s career post Super Bowl XXXVIII and that’s that she has had a series of flops. While it is true that she hasn’t been as visible as she was during the 80s and 90s due to an almost industry-wide blackballing, most people seem to forget that both Damita Jo and 20 Y.O. both debuted at number two on the charts and were certified platinum and Discipline debuted at number one and was certified gold. There are also the movies Why Did I Get Married, Why Did I Get Married Too, and For Colored Girls all of which garnered her praise for her acting.
Still, her fans missed her and, after some of the more dedicated members of her fandom put out a missing poster of her on social media begging her to come out with new material, the singer announced that she would be making a comeback this year. Immediately naysayers began to speculate that the music industry had moved on without Jackson and that she could never compete with likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna. When she finally debuted No Sleeep, the singer showed that she wasn’t trying to compete because she wanted to occupy her own lane. The gamble paid off as the single still sits atop the R&B charts and has managed to fuel ticket sales of her new tour all with minimal promotion.
Of course, this could just bein response to the singer making her return after such a long absence; the real proof would be the album itself. Can Jackson satisfy fans and quiet the negative chatter with a solid body of work? We took an extended listen in order to find out.
1. Unbreakable – Starting with the intro that she previewed before announcing the album’s first single, this track starts off slow before transitioning into a more upbeat, throwback, Jackson 5 sound for the main body. About the totality of her life and how she has managed to come through the rough times more or less intact, this is an ode to her fans. The lyrics are strong with a double meaning that could have the song be aimed at a longtime lover or family member. The main track then fades into a slowed down version of itself with Jackson speaking to the listener as if they were a long, lost friend and thanking them for taking the time to hear her. The totality of the intro and outro have the effect of welcoming the listener to the album and preparing them for what their going to hear; like two people catching up after a long separation (which is what this album is). The production is upbeat enough to engage the listener and starts the album off with the fan love instead of throwing it in as an outro at the end. A solid way to start things off.
2. BURNITUP! – Featuring frequent collaborator Missy Elliot and serving as the album’s third single (Unbreakable was the second), this dance track starts off with the familiar sound that started off classics from the Rhythm Nation like Miss You Much before transitioning into what can only be described as an R&B-based dance track that takes elements from the Timbaland/Timberlake school of production (likely due to the Missy Elliott influence). Elliott’s verse, while nonsensical at the very beginning, gains coherence halfway through and sets the energetic tone for the rest of the song. Jackson’s lyrics are strong and fit the theme well but the real star is Jackson herself who sounds engaged and, for the most part, isn’t using any noticeable autotune on the main vocals. This is a banger of track that satisfies both those who want to dance and those who want to listen deeper than just surface sounds. A standout track.
3. Dammn Baby – This track has a double meaning. On the surface, it can be about changing the tenor of the music playing so that it doesn’t all sound alike; taken as a metaphor, it’s about not letting people put you in a box. The production on this track is mid-tempo R&B with throwback elements that make actually make it sound more like something that would be played on the radio now without sounding like it’s trying to sound like she’s trying to copy a more youthful sound. The track’s breakdown is the interest part as Jackson samples herself from I Get Lonely and the fit is nearly seamless. The vocals on this track are pure Janet as the layered harmonies surge and ebb along with the beatwork, adding a lush effect to the track. A standout track.
4. The Great Forever – This track is a break from the R&B sound that the album has had over the last few tracks and delves into a kind of 80’s electropop sound that might cause some sonic whiplash when listening in order. About the track those people who like to speculate on the state of people’s lives without any evidence to back it up, Jackson literally drops a L.U.T.F.A. and states that she’s got a greater goal in mind. The beatwork, while not awful, does feel somewhat generic in scope for such a big concept (though the electronic elements could be symbolize those who chatter over social media) plus there is a slow down and beat change at the bridge which doesn’t fit at all. Luckily the lyrics and vocals save this track from being skippable as Jackson’s message is the definition of classy shade and her vocals are some of the best that she has delivered in years. The standout section is towards the end of the second verse and over the subsequent bridge where the singer drops into her lower register, something we hardly ever hear.
5. Shoulda Known Better – For those of us who fell in love with Jackson’s hopeful Rhythm Nation will find this track to be a great bookend to those socially conscious tracks. Older and wiser now, the veteran performer speaks on now knowing that it takes more than just commenting on social ills to make a better world; it requires action. Jackson’s vocals are soft and sweet with a somber edge, sounding like someone who is a little world-weary. The tone of the song is reflective in nature and the lyrics back that up with as thoughtful bent. The end of the song has her saying I had this great epiphany/And Rhythm Nation was the dream/I guess next time I’ll know better. It seems, from those lines , that she feels that what she talked about in that track was the outcome of what she wanted to happen, not the solution to the problems. The production of the track is EDM/pop in nature, which fits the mood of the track just fine, but doesn’t make itself stand out in any significant way. While this isn’t a track that you would want to listen to all the time, the message alone is one that makes it worth several listens.
6. After You Fall – A somber piano ballad, this track seems to center around those moments in life when something bad happens and we find out who really has our backs. Likely based around her own personal experiences after Nipplegate, Jackson reflects on what it means when someone sticks with you even in the dark moments. There is reflection is this track as well, and it is one of those songs that will hit you deeply if you’re in the right mood for it. The production allows for the singer to use her angel tone to great effect and really allows the listener to focus on her voice and the comfort in it. The rhyme scheme of the lyrics is almost non-existent (it feels like free-form poetry), but the message makes it easy not to notice. Again, not a track for all moods, but by no means a bad song.
7. Broken Hearts Heal – A transition back into the more upbeat and R&B-based tracks, this track is dedicated to the singer dear, departed brother and The King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Another track with lyrics that doesn’t have a rhyme scheme the lyrics are simple and focus mainly on the bridge and chorus. Very similar to her upbeat ode to lost friends, Together Again, this track focuses around the good times that she spent with her brother and being happy that they will see each other again in the next life. The lush harmonies fill out the vocal spaces well and Jackson sounds like she’s smiling as she sings, which aids the emotional resonance of the track. Worth a few listens.
8. Night – An upbeat dance track that has some early noughties throwback elements in the undertones and (we think) a sample from one of her songs from Control, this song is about the after you have in the morning after either an amazing lovemaking session or a great night on the dancefloor with the one you love. Beyond that, there really isn’t much to say about this track. Jackson sounds nice and the harmonies are lush, but there something about this that just doesn’t connect. A skippable track.
9. No Sleeep – Featuring J Cole, this is the album version of the album’s first single. Starting off with the sound of rainfall before a warm bass comes in, this track is, as Jackson herself describes is, lush. The jazz-like production is an excellent match for the singer’s sweetheart tone as she sings about getting no sleep once she and her man get back together. The lyrics of the track are straightforward and simple without being simplistic, convey something that actually happens when people get back together after a separation. The addition of J. Cole also adds a different perspective; but, not one of a different feeling, just a different view. His verse focus on all the things that he misses about his lady when they’re apart and that he regrets when they have to part again. It’s a complex track with a feel good air; a standout all the way.
10. Dream Maker (Euphoria) – This song is interesting as it is follows in the same vein of social consciousness as Shoulda Known Better except that it’s about where the vision meets the actions. The production of the track makes you think it’s a love song with it’s light, old-school, romantic feel. That feeling is further reinforced by the sweetness in Jackson’s tone and the lightness of the overall vocal performance. The lyrics, however, make it clear what this track is about as she wishes for a world without war in which we could all enjoy the beauty of life. If we didn’t know better, based on lines like Brilliant vision but what you gon do and I wanna do it like you showed me teamed with the title, we would think this song was about Martin Luther King Jr.
11. 2 B Loved – This is a love song that we have no doubt is aimed at her new husband. About wanting to be the person that the person you love turns to when they need that emotional backup, this song has a happy feel thanks to it’s bright, mid-tempo production. Just like No Sleeep the lyrics are simple without being overly simplistic but, this time, the expression of love are a little more everyday than the previous track. Ultimately, though, this feel like album filler because it just doesn’t stand out. Worth a couple listens but is bordering on skippable.
12. Take Me Away – Starting off with a production that has Asian overtones, this track feels like it connects to the last in the way that the two premises join. About wanting to run away with the one you love, this pop/rock track stands out from the back thanks to the pulsing production. The lyrics are nice enough and Jackson’s vocals are a nice fit for the track as the juxtaposition of her soft tones with the harder edged beatwork is a nice touch. Still, it’s the production that makes this track shine and, once you’ve heard it, this becomes somewhat skippable.
13. Promise – Clocking in at less than a minute, this intro is about the promise that every person has to make something out of themselves. The production, which reminded us of George Michael’s Jesus To A Child, has a hint of Spanish guitar in it to enhance the maudlin piano. While this is another whiplash moment following the previous song, it does make us interested in what’s coming next.
14. Lessons Learned – Taking the Spanish guitar and bringing it to the forefront of the Asian-esque (or early Fleetwood Mac depending on how you look at it) melody, this track about two people in a codependent relationship is a good listen. The song delves into the inner mind of a woman who, despite being mistreated by her lover, comes up with excuses as to why she should forgive him and everything is her fault. Again, lyrically, this track is simple to understand but expresses something that many people go through in a way that conveys an unspoken truth. How often do we ask why a person seems to put up with particular relationship conditions; this song provides a possible answer. The song also hints at the man having a similar issue as the woman, but the song doesn’t focus on him (though it would have been nice to hear both sides of the story). Despite a slight misstep, this is a strong track.
15. Black Eagle – Janet Jackson has never been an artist to shy away from social issues and this track seems to showing her solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement by stating that the people who feel marginalized by society are strong, beautiful and deserve respect. The song has a gentle, somewhat cool R&B production that teams with the songstress’ voices for something that ring clear and loud like a bell when you hear it. The lyric state what should be the obvious to people, How would you feel if that was you, asking us all to put ourselves in the position of those who we see as the targets of injustice. Short and sweet, this is a strong track.
16. Well Travelled – This is a track that reflects on Jackson’s life already lived and all that she wants to do with what time she has left. Considering that the singer is 49 (at the time of the album’s release), it is easy to consider this the midpoint of her life. Using the metaphor of life as a road well-travelled, Jackson says that she herself is well travelled and intends to be even more travelled by the time her life comes to an end. The production of the track has a strong country flair in its instrumentation and the use of the harmonies and the lyrics are clear and full of meaning. While it’s not a song for every mood, it’s definitely worth a few listens.
17. Gon’ B Alright – The last track of the album could be said to end things where they started; with a Jackson 5 sounding throwback track about love. This one is about the positive feeling that, now matter what happens to people or in the world in general, love for your fellow man is a way to start the healing. The bouncing, funky beatwork ensures that we are left in a good mood as we find ourselves feeling good that Jackson still has so much optimism left in her. The last few seconds of the track end with Jackson saying thank you to her fans and playfully chastising Jimmy Jam for continuing to record her once she was done with the track (a callback to Control, their first album together).
If there is one word that comes to mind when listening to this album it maturity. Janet Jackson has managed to craft something with Unbreakable shows that she has grown as a person and yet still is just as full of hope for the future and her fellow man as something that she would have put out in her idealistic twenties. It gives you the feeling of listening to someone who still has so much they want to do, but has lived long enough to have their head on straight and share some good wisdom. While it might not be the type of album that can garner her new young fans, it will most certainly satisfy the faithful and cause some of those who wrote her off to give her another listen.