Vocally at least, she’s taken on a deeper timbre that sounds eerily like his voice, with short breaths and inflections as if genuinely channelling his spirit. Musically, though, she’s always been in her brother’s shadow, never quite gaining that marriage of popularity and innovative production. Even with Michael gone, that remains the same.
In many ways, though, Janet has always been the more progressive artist and ‘Unbreakable’ proves that she still has the capacity to surprise us. That said, this album is rooted firmly in the past – thematically and musically. There’s a faint narrative here of key moments in her life – her successes, her failures, her private life – and how they link in with social and political issues. “I had this great epiphany”, she sings at the end of Shoulda Known Better, “and Rhythm Nation was the dream, I guess next time I’ll know better”. It’s followed by the beautifully touching After You Fall, clearly inspired by her brother’s death.
For the most part, ‘Unbreakable’ is a reflective album and it’s in these quieter moments that Jackson’s softer side emerges, with a vocal laden with emotional weight. Her music has always had a tension between her up-tempo dance tracks and her sexy slow-jams – the latter sound appearing on the already dated No Sleeep featuring J.Cole – but the quieter tracks exemplify the maturity at the heart of ‘Unbreakable’. Far from the naïve, youthful dreamer she used to be, you get the sense that Jackson is a wise, hardened woman who has overcome adversity to become, on the penultimate track, Well Travelled. ‘Unbreakable’ is her story.
Fittingly, then, this is musically something of an anthology of her past, covering the many genres she’s experimented with and somehow managing to sound simultaneously retro and modern. Tracks like Missy Elliot collaboration BURNITUP, No Sleeep and the soulful R&B jam of a title track all sound about ten years out of date, but there are some slick, sexy dance tracks here that fit nicely into modern tastes. Dammn Baby is Jackson in typically sexual mode accompanied by trap beats; The Great Forever takes a darker turn with its menacing bass and haunting vocal harmonies; and Night is all warm, funky synths, guitars and piano that subtly hark back to 90s hit Together Again. That Jackson has reunited with songwriting/production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis is totally apparent in the confidence brimming from almost every track.
Dream Maker/Euphoria heralds the start of “Side 2”. Here, the album is a more experimental affair, influenced by a wide range of genres: from the R&B pop of 2 Be Loved, to the stark synth-rock sound of Take Me Away, the guitar-led ballad Lessons Learned, the minimalist finger clicks of Black Eagle, and the glorious World sounds of Well Travelled (that should’ve ended the album, rather than the jaunty Mo-Town funk of Gon’ B Alright). Jackson is pushing boundaries like she hasn’t for years, but whether she now has the popstar clout to deliver these tracks is another matter entirely.
“Am I done? Thank you”, she questions in the album’s final moments at the end of Gon’ B Alright. Part glimpse into her recording process with Jimmy Jam (we are literally jerked out of the dreamworld of her music back into cold reality), it perhaps also heralds the end of Jackson’s career. ‘Unbreakable’ neatly ties together her past, proving her indomitable spirit and solidifying the building blocks of her career and reputation. To progress from here may be a step too far.
* The Great Forever
* Shoulda Known Better
Listen: ‘Unbreakable’ is available now.