Unbreakable, Janet Jackson’s first studio album in seven years, has been released to a flurry of awaiting fans. Janet is noticeably covered during this era. Her bare skin and bodysuits are absent. The music is more reflective, and decidedly less overtly sexual. This renewed modesty is reminiscent of 1980s Janet. It feels deliberate. Her beauty has not faded. Her sex appeal and presence have not waned. She is fully capable of being the sexually provocative woman she has always been. She chooses not to be that. She doesn’t have to be. If anything, in an industry that is replete with hyper-sexuality, Janet's restraint feels provocative. For a woman of color in an industry which rarely allows women of color to have agency over their bodies and call their own shots, Janet is being a woman on her own terms.
Like Cher and Madonna, Janet exists as a single name. She doesn’t need a surname. She is a force. However, in the same sense as Whitney and Aretha – two women who are also recognizable by only their first names – Janet’s presence and legacy demands that we refer to her as Janet Jackson. Miss Jackson. She commands this respect. Janet is a brand. Janet Jackson is a woman; a woman who is to be respected, revered, and lauded. Janet shows us the full extent of her womanhood. She remains notoriously tight-lipped and private without feeling robotic. We know Janet Jackson. She is her art. Her music is her life.
Reunited with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the experimental Unbreakable is organic Janet. It is a deliciously smart pop album. Janet is a musician. Her stellar songwriting and musical choices set her apart from many of her peers. She uses different registers (from focused contralto tones to her signature wispy soprano) and dances back and forth between riding the beat and using her voice as an instrument to become a part of the musical landscape.
The pulsating house feel and jazz piano riffs of Night, the Michael-esque vocal stylings of The Great Forever, the rich harmonic clusters that are present in Broken Hearts Heal, the naked vocals and sparse piano of After You Fall, and the thumping bass of Dammm Baby (I plan to record a remix of the latter called Zammm Zaddy) offer different flavors while remaining sonically consistent and cohesive. Burn it Up is a certified banger, although Missy Elliot's opening verse is mostly unintelligible. Her energy makes up for it. (I imagine that's the result of being around Janet. You just start spewing gibberish. Janet is that great) The retro opening of Dream Maker/Euphoria to the harmonic shifts in its hook; these faux modulations are akin to Janet’s ever-changing images that, somehow, always remain in the key of Janet.
Gon’ Be Alright is a funky tune laced with Motown sounds, evoking the sounds of her brothers. When she shouts things like “Horns!” throughout the track, we are reminded of one of her fierce contemporaries. When these moments occur, it’s not as if Janet – in efforts to remain relevant – is borrowing elements from those she influenced. Instead, we are reminded that it is from Janet that their careers derived.
Janet is the blueprint. If we celebrate a female pop artist today, it is likely for something Janet did first. Their energetic rhythm punching stage shows are a clear nod to Janet’s dance heavy presentations. Their brazen sexuality follows Janet’s model, but often without the authenticity that Janet conveyed. Janet took control of any sexual space she entered while artists of today seem to be offering themselves for our consumption. New artists indulge in feminism that feels calculated, polished, and controlled. Janet’s female empowerment is smart, messy, human, and confrontational. Her womanism is vulnerable, sexy, strong, and inclusive. It’s also, perhaps the most important element of her womanism, very intentional and political.
The politics of Janet are not lost on this album. The woman who seared her name into the face of pop history with Rhythm Nation is still edgy and provocative in her messages. In Black Eagle, she sings about lives that matter. “We all need to do better,” Janet reminds us. Unbreakable feels like a charge for us to love – love beyond the bedroom, love of self, and love among the people. At times, it’s still sexual, but it’s subtle. No Sleep, the album’s first single, represents Janet’s subtlety and coy sexuality. She’s able to f-ck your lights out and flash an angelic smile afterwards, like her sex is so good that it’s heavenly. Perfect, polite p-ssy. It’s as if she greedily devours you like a four course meal, proceeds to lightly dab the corners of her mouth with a cloth napkin, belches, and mutters a cute and mousy “Excuse me.” (There's actually a moment on this album when she says "Bless you" after someone sneezes in the background.)
Unbreakable is fresh and current without being trendy. It’s a concept that has eluded other aging pop divas who rely on gimmicks to stay afloat. Janet, the indisputable pop queen, uses reinvention as a product of her forward movement rather than allow that reinvention become the center of her music. Her womanhood does not shy away from politicization. It’s more daring than the feminist messages of her contemporaries. Misogynoir has allowed people to attempt to write Janet off. The infamous Superbowl incident cast a cloud over Janet's career as the public attacked and abandoned her. Madonna has been allowed to be seen as provocative while Janet is viewed as perverse. Madonna is the Maria Sharapova to Janet Jackson’s Serena Williams. Janet challenges the status quo while others employ its tools. Unbreakable presents a comfortable and confident Janet, aged to perfection. Emerging after seven years of silence, unscathed, resilient and unbreakable, she’s here to remind us that she is still the reigning queen of pop. She is The Great, forever.