Liner Notes: Finding Freedom, Love & The Great Forever On Janet Jackson's 'Unbreakable'

It is hard to believe that the independent and innovative voice of Janet Jackson was once at a loss for words.

Yes, the woman who considers her albums her journals, the unequivocal open books to her life, was at one time unable to begin a conversation as during the 2004 recording sessions of Damita Jo she asked long-time producer and writing partner, Terry Lewis, to pen the lyrics for her because she didn't have "anything to talk about". Years later, recounting this moment in the 2011 BBC doc, Taking Control, Janet’s other long-time producer and writing partner, Jimmy Jam chimed in to say: "Then we shouldn't be making an album."

Jam was right. Janet shouldn't have been making an album, shouldn’t have begun to open a new journal when she didn’t have words to perfume its blank pages, but she did anyway and released Damita Jo, and to no surprise, it became her lowest chart showing in decades. Granted the album was released just a month after the 2004 Sporting-Event-Incident-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named where Janet received some of the harshest glares and criticisms of her career, but Damita Jo from a creative stand-point was a disappointment as the songs were fine, but Janet herself wasn't truly present in the music. Follow-up releases, such as the 2006 Jermaine Dupri-led dud 20 Y.O. and the digitized dreck of 2008's Discipline didn't balm the matter --- never mind a few sparse bright spots --- as Janet, once so singular, once so 'in control' of her expression was now talking the same dull rhetoric as everyone else, traipsing through the typical clich├ęd motions of an aging pop star whose road map for success was for certain misplaced.

Now, seven years later, Janet has found that road map as Unbreakable is the best album Janet has made in years. 18 to be exact as she hasn't been this introspective, this inspired, this conscious and spot-on since 1997's Velvet Rope, where every single song plays either like a classic memorable hit or a clandestine masterpiece where Janet's voice bursts with veracity and vibrancy. She's engaged, her mind and heart working congruent, the lyrics falling authentic and notable from her lips. Everything just works.

Janet now realizes the error of 20 Y.O and Discipline's ways, that her full involvement is a vital aspect to the creative development of her projects, and for Unbreakable she's back at reinforcing her independent thought and carefree Black woman persona, signature elements that make a Janet Jackson album a special commodity. The past few years have no doubt added insight to her prose, with the death of her brother Michael Jackson in 2009 to her quietly marrying Qatri billionaire Wissam Al Mana in 2012 being her core focuses of examination, but she's fully back balancing her smiles and tears without hiccup, crafting Unbreakable as an album that celebrates as poignantly as it also meditates.

Janet was wise to restart her decades-long partnership with the prolific producing duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis instead of latching herself with the trendiest set of producers. Jam and Lewis were noted for getting Janet out of disco-pop mediocrity hell when she reasserted herself with her 1986 coming-of-age breakout record, Control, and the two once again get Janet back on track, back to urging her to dig deeper, and weave herself back into her music. Together they sculpt and configure Unbreakable into a quasi-ode to almost every aspect of Janet's past lives. The social grievances of Rhythm Nation, the deep personal musings of Velvet Rope, the frisky joy of All For You, the sly sensual winks of janet., the bold grown-up proclamation of Control --- the gang is really all here.

From pensive piano ballads ("After You Fall"), to retro soul joints ("Dream Maker/Euphoria"), to entrancing club bops ("Night"), hip-hop heaters ("Dammn Baby") and country pop stomps ("Well Traveled"), Unbreakable hopscotches through various throwback thoughts, multiple moods and styles, and they all integrate well, melting into each other to form quite a cohesive collection. It's inviting to hear the seamless way Janet bridges the old with the new, how it's aware of the trends without bending pressure to them. For that, Janet is far and away ahead of the aesthetics of her fellow senior pop icon citizens. She's not meandering in the safe zone like Mariah Carey, or breathlessly baiting a radio-tuned youth crowd akin to her pop queen rival Madonna, nor does she hold her nose high to self-indulge and distance her past (and her listeners) a la Prince.

When Janet taps into the EDM market she doesn't sound like a visitor, but an integral part of the surging noughties synth movement as the acidic, "Take Me Away" is a master dive into crash waves of electric guitars and synths, Mrs. Al Mana recounting with happy clarity the new chapter in her love life: So even with a million miles distance between us/ I know you'll be there to help me escape/ Take me away from here / To somewhere the air is clear/ Take me away from here/ To somewhere that love has no fear".

"2 B Loved" bubbles with a trappish vibe, just so lightly sweetened with Janet’s brisk, jovial tone. The DJ Mustard-esque electro R&B bop, "Dammn Baby" has hit single written all over it with its chopped n' screwed vocals and a surprising skittish, hip-hop flow from Janet that has her in braggadocios swagger this side of "Nasty". And "BURNITUP!", a high energy charged bullet that reunites her with fellow fierce femme, Missy Elliott is easily the album's most gratuitous moment, but is so feverishly intoxicating to where one can't help but start sweating out the perm and throw down on the dancefloor to yet another funky good Janet uptempo.

The fantastic "Night", feels like a Fever-era Kylie Minogue bop with its spangled modern house synths and towering hooks, where Janet gets caught up in bliss to ooze out: "Love has taken over/ Like a tidal wave/ The universe is aligned/ Feeling the love tonight". The song isn't done dishing divine thrills as its breakdown is entwined with joyful pianos and squishy synth work that nicely wink at Jam and Lewis' The Time days. I literally wake up in heaven in the morning with the biggest smile on my face knowing that this fantastic song exists.

Flourishes of sonic treats pop up throughout --- from Janet cutely catching a light sneeze on "The Great Forever" (and saying "bless you" without missing a beat) to where "After You Fall" warps in the middle, and back into Janet sampling herself on the luminous "Dammn Baby", a literal boss move that only a queen of her caliber could do --- it's these little touches that keep Janet's sound afresh and youthful without making her sound as if she's scrunched and waiting for her turn at the kiddie table.

There is, though, slight variation on her usual sexual repartee, and those who are looking for some all-nite this is sick throbbing, rope burning, and twenty foreplay fornicating may need to find carnal knowledge elsewhere as Unbreakable forgoes the bedroom frolics for forays into the inner mind. The lowered sexual temperature is no doubt ascribed to Janet's newfound spiritual lifestyle after her reported conversion to Islam, but the album isn't fully swathed in fabric and silver bangles, Janet still has some purr in her as noted on the plush, bedroom eyed "No Sleeep" that wedges in a nice flow from J. Cole. In honesty, Janet has made a lofty career off of waxing about her kitty kat so her putting the sexual heals on pause for this record is the most radical move Janet has made since she moaned and mumbled French nothings into her lover's ear on "Funny How The Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)". (Add to that, Unbreakable's recent record breaking triumph proves that you don't have to show tits and ass in order to get to that sweet #1 *cough* position).

It's also notable how much of Michael's presence is resurrected in this collection. Janet contends to the elephant in the room as she addresses Michael's tragic passing, looking at it from two coin sides, cutting deep into the marrow on the gorgeous "After You Fall" or channeling a euphoric spirit on the Off The Wall-inspired, "Broken Hearts Heal" as she recounts warm childhood moments, putting lyrical texture to their iconic musical partnership, words that should quell crazy long-standing fan feuds that there was unhealthy sibling rivalry going on between them. "The Great Forever" is Janet refashioning Michael's "Leave Me Alone" her way as it wags its finger towards critics, but the spiked beats and Janet’s spitting spiel gives her dissent new edge. She takes the high road, forgiving the haters in the same breath as shading them, sounding like her big bro with scary dictating precision. Nods to her elder brother's Jackson 5 days swing and sway throughout the melodic title track and the riotous funk romp of "Gon B Alright" that is splattered with mighty horns and Sly Stone sensibility that show Janet at her funkiest.

Janet's ballads are exceptional and stronger on Unbreakable, and urge one to listen closer to their anatomy. The slow tango of the all too brief interlude, "Promise" is spine-chillingly good, but the pivotal moment is when "Lessons Learned", a guitar-led meditative about domestic abuse segues into the brilliant "Black Eagle" a haunting down-tempo that is experimental sonically as it is verbally. Serving on the surface as a poetic guard for those who have been marginalized, deeper into its lyricals its tonal vibe shifts into a reassuring ode to her fellow Black brothers and sisters, who have borne witness to the lack of justice for Black bodies, and the hyperactive racism that seems to never cease, but just becomes even more heighten. When she lets: "I'm singing this love song to show my support/ To the beautiful people who have been ignored/ With blind eyes and cold shoulders attacking them/ Invisible people they won't let fit in/ Let's open our eyes to the true barriers/ The stereotypical things are the worst/ Stand face to face with the real ugly truth/ How would you feel if that was you" satellite around a sparse bed of frosted mechanical blips and beeps, you can't help but feel the directness of it.

Janet keeps her eye trained towards the visuals of the #BlackLivesMatter marches and the visages of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland for "Should've Known Better", the apex of the album's social commentary. Though Janet is still down for the good fight as she urges for solutions amid confetti eruptions of synths, with its startling coda: "I had this great epiphany/And Rhythm Nation was the dream/I guess next time I'll know better", Janet speaks with frankness about how her dream of harmony between the races, genders and classes some odd 25 years ago, has been somewhat deferred. Its this line that clues one into how even with all of Janet's celebrity status and her achievements, she stays woke and aware that she can't live in a bubble when it comes to the state of the world, that her race, her gender are still being disenfranchised and discarded and to be silent about it is not an option. Janet takes that stand, a stand even some of her own peers refuse to do simply because the paycheck is mightier than the cause, and its this stand that keeps her head above shoulders from the rest, a true icon in the sense of the word.

For a while most wondered how Janet Jackson, a near 50-year-old female pop veteran was going to retain any sort of relevancy in a shifting musical landscape, where sex sells, mediocrity is herald over innovation, and her disciples --- you know the Beyonces, Ciaras, Janelle Monaes, and FKA twigs of this world --- reside and rule the roost.

Unbreakable should quell those doubts, illuminate the fact that Janet is in the sweet, lofty place where she doesn't have to "fit in" or prove anything. Her turning a polished middle finger towards typical industry practices when she launched her own label, Rhythm Nation Records, proved that Janet wasn't here for being muzzled or having her artistic vision mangled, and her doing little to no promotion for Unbreakable also provided notion that Janet is back to transcending the status quo of the the pop culture paradigm, giving herself and others permission in this fast-paced era of social media overshare, that slowing down and retaining mystery in the midst of craft  can reinvigorate your sense of expression, producing a product most worthy of yourself.

With conversation renewed, words falling into place, Unbreakable is where we see Janet Jackson now, happier, liberated, and restating that her last name, always has and always will be "control".

+ Unbreakable is available for download and purchase via iTunes, and available for streaming via Spotify
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