As if the world stood still, Janet Jackson's present-day return to music has us all on pause. It's because there's probably not a single superstar in the R&B constellation that's been as reclusive as Janet “Damita Jo” Jackson in recent years, save possibly Sade. It's been seven years since Discipline dropped, but only her closest and most devout fans seem to remember it. Commercially, the album made very little noise, causing most to cast the blame of its apocalyptic failure on the industry myth that Jackson was blackballed after “Nipplegate,” the Super Bowl half-time show that televised a choreographed dance move gone wrong. It was the third in a string of dismal receptions that also surrounded 2004's Damita Jo and 2006's 20 Y.O., projects possibly even beleaguered by the then more immediate wardrobe malfunction fallout of February 2014.
As if the world stood still, Janet Jackson's present-day return to music has us all on pause. It's because there's probably not a single superstar in the R&B constellation that's been as reclusive as Janet “Damita Jo” Jackson in recent years, save possibly Sade. It's been seven years since Discipline dropped, but only her closest and most devout fans seem to remember it. Commercially, the album made very little noise, causing most to cast the blame of its apocalyptic failure on the industry myth that Jackson was blackballed after “Nipplegate,” the Super Bowl half-time show that televised a choreographed dance move gone wrong. It was the third in a string of dismal receptions that also surrounded 2004's Damita Jo and 2006's 20 Y.O., projects possibly even beleaguered by the then more immediate wardrobe malfunction fallout of February 2014. After jumping into a few subsequent acting roles and putting her music game on hold, Jackson found love and settled down with the Qatari billionaire, Wissam Al Mana. Even with ageism holding her back from taking the Queen of Pop/R&B throne now occupied by Beyoncé, Jackson is once again interested in jumping back into the pop arena, a scene now dominated by scantily-clad lightweight vixens and fad-vexed hip-hop soldiers. But, can she still hold her own?
The initial step toward reclaiming the throne was "No Sleeep," the first drop of new music from the seventeen-track Unbreakable. The smooth urban AC sounds, fluttery raindrops and Jackson's whispery coos pointed towards janet-era mid-tempo jams and showed signs of a return to form. Dropping the in-demand rapper, J. Cole, on the tweaked remix only escalated the song's profile, helping to push its reach beyond the original 30-and-up demo. But, was it enough? Not really. While the single rose to #1 on urban AC radio playlists, it stalled at #18 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts and barely cracked the Billboard Hot 100 (peaked at #63). Even the Jackson 5-esque title track, released a matter of weeks later, failed to make any major movement.
Still, Jackson is a brute force, a commander-in-chief in her world of sexy urban dreamscapes and sophisticated clubland teases. Her media heralded return means something, particularly when black faces on popular R&B seem to be radically slipping away from the forefront. On Unbreakable, she tosses aside the frail gimmicks of her last two LPs and refocuses by teaming up with longtime producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The one-time Prince acolytes who were responsible for Jackson's iconic Control and amazing follow-up Rhythm Nation 1814, aren't just aboard a few of the Unbreakable tracks, they are on every track. This isn't just a litmus test for Jackson; it's also one for Jam & Lewis.
Thankfully, the third single, "Burnitup," is a definite charm and a TKO of a jam. With a revived Missy Elliot on the opening seconds and a background groove reminiscent of Laid Back's "White Horse," it's hard to not take Jackson seriously here. Unbreakable also yields a few creative highlights. The finest of them all, "Night" submerges her into a "tidal wave" of cool house and something otherworldly. Later, Jam & Lewis slyly drop a reverse synth line from the instrumental vamp heard on Prince's 1979 "I Wanna Be Your Lover," an ode to their Purple One messiah. "Dammn Baby" also sounds like a tease of Yarbrough & Peoples’ old school beats, as it marinates in a sea of synth funk. There's even a careful transport back in time to Sly & the Family Stone sound on "We Gon' B Alright." Tracks like the pop-heavy "Take Me Away" and the transcendent "2 Be Loved" are also pleasant additions to the collection, avoiding the carnal temptation of dropping sex-clad adventures and directing all attention on sweet butterfly love. And even though "The Great Forever," one of the album's early moments, isn't a melodic smash, it's completely awe-striking to hear Jackson sounding like her late brother, Michael Jackson, on its opening lines.
Nonetheless, the album, modestly ripe with good vibes and sounds, is evidently missing the chunky hits and evolutionary riffs expected of a Janet Jackson “event” project. Songs meant to provide ambiance to easy-listening periods of time take up way too much of the running time. As if we're really interested in being bombarded with a collage of even more non-singles, Jackson delivers a filler two-minute experimental interlude, "Dream Maker/Euphoria," that perhaps was meant to give Jackson a hybrid of Beyoncé swagger and 21st century neo-soul, but falls short of both. Similarly disheartening, "Broken Hearts Heal" suffers due to its over-repetitive chorus, while the minimalist-dressed "Black Eagle" hardly takes off due to Jackson's lullabied vocals. Thankfully, the latter does turn up the heat on her Rhythm Nation politics and addresses present-day ills in the fight for social justice ("Because every life matters/We all need to do better").
Jackson, 49, is quite aware of the unfortunate circumstance that’s presented her as a veteran diva. She knows the music industry is icky (and finicky) as hell — that's why she signed the financially mind-blowing distribution deal with BMG that ensures full pockets regardless of the commercial outcome. She's familiar with the other divas’ stans that are overloaded with pessimism over the idea of an earnest return to grandeur by one of the blueprints of those artists, their artists. There’s also the enduring lack of forgiveness in some quarters over the Super Bowl incident nearly 12 years later, elements that will never give any future products by Jackson a fair hearing as a result. The subsequent multi-platinum efforts of Justin Timberlake proved he successfully recovered from Nipplegate, if he ever took a hit at all. Theoretically, Jackson should be able to too. It was a malfunction, for goodness' sakes! And yet, the differences in public perception of these two artists since that singular incident have never favored Jackson.
Fair play and racial and gender politics aside, it smells like Unbreakable is more interested in Jackson satisfying her own soul than it is in making a major artistic statement or a defining rebuttal to how she’s been treated. She's far from worried about the past or what the haters or even the music critics have to say. That's evidenced strongly on "Shoulda Known Better," where she gives the last shrug: "It's never the critic that counts/Cause critics only wanna talk." Forty-one charting hits into this game, Jackson isn't trying to compete with fellow peers like Madonna or nab any of Beyonce's spotlight. She's just getting back in the saddle again as a musician and offering some new material for her loyalists. Having said that, Unbreakable doesn't break any new creative or cultural ground, but it will remind her devout fans of the good ol’ days, just not any reconfiguration of it. For now, I guess that's good enough. Recommended.
By J Matthew Cobb