(Originally posted on Facebook on 10/4/15)
By Jay Ray | @jayrayisthename
When you think about it - Janet Jackson was the ultimate underdog. The youngest of 9 children, Janet was born the same year that her older brother, Michael (8 years her senior and musical prodigy), began singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5. By the time Janet appeared on stage at age 7, her brothers were stars, and the family had already uprooted from Gary, Indiana to Encino, California.
You might argue that she was no underdog, but if the performance of her eponymous debut is any indication, I have a strong retort. The record, while good, was usurped by her older brother. I don’t think anyone could have accurately predicted the impact “Thriller” would have on music, but it certainly did nothing to save his sister’s record from the bargain bin. Her second record, “Dream Street,” fared even worse. It barely charted, and has never earned any RIAA designation. By 1985 the assumption was that Janet would just be an actress.
Then “Control” happened, followed by “Rhythm Nation 1814,” followed by “Janet,” followed by “The Velvet Rope.” “TVR” has been widely touted as Jackson’s masterwork. High production value, introspective lyrics and powerful imagery all converged to make an impressive impact. It was almost for naught though. Not only was “TVR” hard to make, it was hard to sell too. The record was saved through Jackson’s tenacity and a successful tour.
In the years following “TVR,” Jackson remained notable, but she wasn’t making generally interesting music. Interesting note, prior to this time, it was easy for the press and public to pass off Jackson’s success as a combination of family name, svengali producers and a songwriter husband. It was only after this that we got to see the importance of Jackson in her recording process. By the time “All For You” (2001) surfaced, it’s been reported that Jackson wasn’t as involved in the process as before. By the time “20 Y.O.” (2006) arrived, we were looking for any glimpses of the Janet we once knew and loved. “Discipline” (2008) was a bit of a bright spot, but it still wasn’t quite her.
I will admit, I didn’t expect a Janet Jackson record in 2015. Unpacking the surprise of “Unbreakable” isn’t easy for me. It’s a pop record with R & B sensibilities. It’s a modern record with a classic feel. It’s an introspective record. This really surprised me, because it appeared that Janet did the thing that most aging pop stars do - keep trying to do the things they’re known for doing in a young and “hip” way, even though they’re no longer young, and their fans may be slightly past the point of “hip.” When the promotion began we were treated to a covered up Janet (no more sexy midriff) and a more adult contemporary first single that was slinky, but not overtly sexual.
The gamble appears to be paying off. While not a masterwork, “Unbreakable” is a fitting entry into the Janet Jackson catalog. It’s contemporary without being trendy. It sounds more like a follow up to “The Velvet Rope” than the works in between. The record sounds like a love letter to her brother, Michael, and a thank you to her family and fans. (The timbre of Janet’s voice is eerie at some points on this album. It’s almost as if Michael is guest appearing.)
Janet Jackson has done the thing that her brother couldn’t seem to do. With “Unbreakable,” Janet has effectively taken her sound and lyricism that she’s known for and placed it in a modern setting without sounding dated. Janet is both present and accounted for here. She’s proven that Rolling Stone Magazine cover story title was no fluke. She’s once again triumphant.