“I’ve been listening. Let’s keep the conversation going.” These were the words delivered by Janet Jackson when she announced a new era May of this year. Between the passing of her brother, Michael Jackson, and her recent marriage to Wissam Al Mana, Janet has been under the intense scrutiny, especially because of her recent disappearance from the public eye. Discipline, her tenth studio album, didn’t quite appease the craving of fans and listeners. Janet must’ve felt the public’s clamor for her music; “It’s been awhile. Lots to talk about,” she says in the outro of Unbreakable’s title track, with love and adoration for her fans.
Her latest foray into music, Unbreakable, has several of the things that fans have come to love about Janet. Coming off the era of Discipline, there is no shortage of dance tracks here. BURNITUP!, which features Missy Elliott, is a club-ready and synthesizer-driven jam that proves Janet still has the chops to pull off a dance track like this, harkening back to hits like Rhythm Nation and Control, but with a modern twist and a brisker pace. Night, another surefire club jam, is heavily influenced by 1990s house music, and reveals an ecstatic Janet professing about a love that’s heavenly and divine. Dammn Baby, on the other hand, sets itself apart by being trap-inspired, what with the recent trend, but carries Janet’s essential message of starting a new movement and conversation. One thing that makes these songs transcend the label of just “dance music” is Janet’s ability to turn them into platforms for her message.
Unlike her previous albums, majority, if not all, of Unbreakable’s tracks are produced by Janet’s frequent collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. With Unbreakable released under her newly formed label Rhythm Nation, as well as the direction of the tour, it seems that Janet is running a tight ship and making this new project all her own. Not surprising, though, coming from the famed singer who shook the pop landscape in 1986 when she cut her ties with her father as a manager and released Control, her third studio album.
Through the years, Janet Jackson has established autonomy over her career and her sound. With revolutionary stances on sexuality, identity, and her opinions on race and equality, Jackson has strived to be known not just for her music, but also for the causes she believes in. The Janet seen in Unbreakable, though not as sultry as janet. or not as somber as The Velvet Rope, is someone who’s been through a lot of upheaval and change, but accepts these things with an open mind and a loving heart—an enlightened Janet. In this era, she’s seen it all, been through the eye of the storm, both proverbial and emotional, and relays all the emotions and contemplations with a loving, sometimes coy, smile.
It’s refreshing to hear a pop record that’s genuinely happy, even if it’s tinged with a little bit of melancholy and nostalgia. In the ballad After You Fall, Jackson croons over a piano asking “Who’s gonna be there, after you fall?” Janet speaks of resilience in the face of opposition, with airy whispers only she could pull off. She continues this theme with Lessons Learned, a song detailing a co-dependent relationship, and the regrets and wishes that go with it. “What makes her want to stay, so strong,” Janet sings as a bass beat soothingly strums in the background. For the most part, Jackson’s latest effort talks about resilience in different scenarios and angles, testing what boundaries can be broken by the human spirit.
There’s also a push-and-pull dynamic between the young idealism of Janet and the wise optimism of who she is now. On Shoulda Known Better, a rousing, MJ-like number, where she sings about the real changes that could happen in the world today, she’s optimistic that if people raise their voices, a revolution could happen. However, she ends the track with “I had this great epiphany, and rhythm nation was the dream; I guess next time I’ll know better,” a reference to Rhythm Nation, her ode to equality and world peace. Though it seems that there’s a mournful callback to her old self, songs like Dream Maker / Euphoria and Black Eagle look forward to a brighter future. The former paints an almost utopian vision of a world, with Janet evoking 70s soul feelings, while Black Eagle is a more somber, folk-inspired song about Janet’s wish for peace and higher meaning.
Janet also pays tribute to her brother, Michael, with the song Broken Hearts Heal, reminiscing about simpler times and recalling the grief she experienced when he passed. “Inshallah (God willing), see you in the next life,” she sings with a smile towards the sky. The Great Forever, a song where Janet sounds just like Michael in a few verses, discusses the possibility of a great love and also the disturbance of one’s peace, alluding to the media’s meddling with the affairs of both Jackson siblings.
Signaling Janet’s fearlessness in experimenting with her sound, Take Me Away is an upbeat love song about a lover taking her away to a place where their love thrives. Other songs like 2 Be Loved and No Sleeep, like Take Me Away, also present Janet’s innovation in bringing new takes for her fans; while the former sounds like her classic love songs with a few twists and an upbeat tone, No Sleeep is destined to be a classic with followers of R&B for its quiet storm sensibilities and a very welcome rap verse by J.Cole.
Ultimately, Unbreakable is a cohesive and compelling pop statement from a musical legend. It’s a love letter to the fans who have been there from the start, from her breaking out, to her peak, even to her break from the public eye. The final song, Gon’ B Alright, a rousing and uplifting homage to the Jackson 5 and Sly & The Family Stone, voices out the assurance from Janet herself that this bond, whether she pertains to her family or her fans, will be strong enough to withstand everything. “I’ve come a long way, got a long way to go,” she sings on Well Travelled, looking back on her journey as a person and as an icon. She has proven that she’s one of the greats, and those only come once in a generation, unbreakable as they come.