Thursday, October 15, 2015

album review: 'unbreakable' by janet jackson

Well... okay, sure, why not?

You know, I'm surprised there was so much demand for me to cover Janet Jackson. I guess I shouldn't be, considering that for a good decade from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, the queen of R&B was cranking out albums that could easily be held up as high points in the genre - and keep in mind her brother Michael was just as active in this period. From the autobiographical Control that saw her seize control of her career to the more political and surprisingly relevant Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 in 1989 to the more experimental and sexual Janet in 1993, there was a period where Janet Jackson could do no wrong in her blend of incredibly tight pop and R&B. And the amazing thing is that these albums hold up - yeah, there are some synth tones and drum effects that sound dated, but not nearly as many as I was expecting.

But then R&B faded away from prominence in the late 90s and by the time it came back in the 2000s, Janet Jackson was still charting hits, but the critical acclaim wasn't coming the way it used to... mostly because the albums were of middling quality at best. The records were getting raunchier and that does work for a certain thrill, but at some point it just started feeling overdone and repetitive. It didn't help her career took a body blow thanks to that Super Bowl performance - of which the reaction was way blown out of proportion and says way more about puritanical American culture than anything else - and her albums throughout the latter half of the 2000s seemed all the more desperate to retake the spotlight. But by then R&B was fading out in favour of pop again and in 2009, the brother who had always hung over Janet's career in the eyes of the public died tragically, so Janet took a break from recording new music. Instead, she did some work for film, stage, and philanthropy, got a divorce and remarried, and only returned with a new album released on her own label this year.

And to some extent I had no idea what to expect. For as influential as Janet has been throughout the course of her career, modern R&B is a very different place than it was in the 80s or 90s or even 2000s, and I was concerned how her breathy vocals had managed to last under the wear of over thirty years in the industry. But when I heard 'No Sleeep', the lead-off single for this album, I had every reason to believe there'd be quality here - and frankly, it's only been my insane schedule that's prevented me from covering this sooner. So how is Unbreakable?

Well, might as well answer the big questions first: is this album a respectable return to form after about arguably between fifteen and twenty years of hit-and-miss material? Yes. Is it on the same level as the three albums that you can hold up as the gold standard for Janet Jackson's material? No, but what I appreciate about this album is that there's a maturity to its presentation and writing that doesn't just show confidence in a working formula, but also a commitment to writing good songs that do experiment, but do so off of a working foundation. Is it a little too long? Well, yeah, but all of Janet Jackson's albums since '89 have been about two or three songs too long, and this one is no exception, and it doesn't make this record any less enjoyable. 

So let's start with Janet Jackson herself - and look, she's nearly fifty and has been touring probably thirty years, the fact that her vocals are as good as they are is impressive. She doesn't quite have the breathy girlishness that was so damn infectious on her earlier work, but the deepening tones - and her willingness to use more of her lower range - gives her a mature poise and gravitas that she definitely plays to her advantage, whether it be on the dance floor hookups or the quiet love ballads that have been in her wheelhouse for decades. It's very telling that even despite scores of imitators and those following a similar formula, Janet still manages to stand out or in the case of the trap-inspired dance jam of 'Dammn Baby', actually do it better. It's also telling how much versatility that she has that she can carry this record across shifts in genre, tone, and subject matter, so much so that I'd argue that both of her guest stars probably could have been removed and the songs would have been improved. Yeah, J.Cole drops one of his better verses on 'No Sleeep', but it's not essential, and I get why people would like Missy Elliott on 'Burnitup!', but she's really playing hype woman and isn't saying anything that stellar, she could have easily been cut for a damn great dance jam.

And make no mistake, when we get to the instrumentation and production, Janet brought her A-team back - so much of this production has fantastic organic swell, balance, superb multi-tracking, and great, liquid smooth texture. And as I said earlier, Janet gets that there needs to be foundational melody and groove to drive this material, and at this album's best, it can pull together some impressively tight tracks: the spiky beat of 'Burnitup!', the gurgling synth groove of 'Dammn Baby' that sounds like Janet taking a DJ Mustard track and making it a dozen times better, the stellar rollicking groove of 'The Great Forever' to the spacious, wiry synth line on 'Night'. But that's the stuff Janet can do in her sleep - same with gorgeous love songs like 'No Sleeep' or the stripped-back tribute to her brother 'After You Fall' - where this album gets interesting for me is when it gets more experimental. The mix on 'Shoulda Known Better' may have started with restraint, but then builds a fantastic snare and guitar swell for the chorus that's as anthemic as anything Janet did on Rhythm Nation 1814. And then you get to the back half of the album with the delicate pluck accented by the horns of 'Take Me Away' that explodes into outright electro-rock, or the country-esque acoustic guitars and tones on 'Lessons Learned' that has the smoky feel of a bleak campfire song, or the Sly & The Family Stone-esque album closer 'Gon' B Alright', complete with horns, gospel swell, snarled lo-fi guitar work and a huge chorus. Now of course when you have this much experimentation you're bound to misfire, and it really comes when the songs and textures don't compliment Janet's vocals as well as they should, from the cluttered mix bookended by spooling tape on 'Dream Maker/Euphoria', or the stab towards accordion and steel guitar on 'Well Travelled' - I appreciate the attempt, but the tone throughout the song just rings as way too awkward to balance with Janet's vocal tone. And then there are the songs that just feel a bit like filler, like the overmixed '2 B Loved' with that sparking high synth dancing around the edges or the very obvious disco throwback on 'Broken Hearts Heal'. Yeah, I know the latter track is a lighthearted tribute to Michael, but outside of that snap, there just wasn't much that grabbed me.

This takes us to the lyrics - and here's the thing, if Janet was looking to impress me here, she came close. One of the underrated parts of Janet Jackson's material has been her social conscience, so when we get songs like 'Shoulda Known Better' which is an outright continuation of her message of peace and how she shouldn't have been as naive to think it was going to come easy or all from her, it shows how much she's matured. Then there's 'Lessons Learned', a song about an abusive relationship where the girl stays, and Janet's not afraid to show the full story and give the girl the option out: it's only the guy's song that's playing, are you really cool with that? And then there's the sure-to-be controversial song 'Black Eagle', which is about nothing less than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict - and while it's clear she's more on the side of Palestine, she also includes plenty of lyrics like 'we all need to do better', holding both sides accountable... which, really, given the decades-long nightmare that is that conflict, it's the right move to make. Of course, she also reserves words for the paparazzi who have been judging her marriage to a Qatari businessman on 'The Great Forever', but while those words cut, they're still wrapped in Janet's more peaceful message. Because really, if we're stabbing towards a central theme on this record, it'd be tied to that need to bring in more peace and love into the world, and if that sounds a little flighty and idealistic... well, it is, but the earnestness of the presentation makes up for a lot. I should also note that of Janet's albums, this is probably the least sexual explicit in years, but honestly, I didn't have much of an issue with that, considering Janet can still do plenty with innuendo and her delivery to make tracks that are sexy as hell, so no issue there.

So look, I definitely liked this album, more than I was expecting. No, it's not on the level of her best work - a little too long, a little scattershot, too many experiments misfire or give less than full returns - but it's still a well-written and mature R&B record from one of the greats, and it's nice to see a return to a baseline of quality. For me, it's a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of Janet Jackson. But hell, even if you're not, it's nice to see the Queen of R&B make a worthy case why she still deserves that throne.

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