Janet Jackson ‘Unbreakable’ – Review

21 Oct

Janet Jackson is more than an icon – for my money she has done more to influence contemporary pop and r&b than any other artist of the last thirty years. Her collaborative approach to songwriting and production is now the norm and her experimental but melodic r&b has inspired everyone from Beyoncé and Frank Ocean to the more avant-garde Grimes, Natalie Prass and How to Dress Well.

It’s funny how time alters perception. At the release of her last album, 2008’s ‘Discipline’ Janet was vastly underrated. That album, an ok dance-pop crossover, failed to find a large audience and it seemed Janet only interested some people in relation to her elder brother Michael. In that sense it felt like the conversation surrounding her had regressed by thirty odd years. She was back to being Michael’s younger sister rather than an artist in her own right.

Since then the world has been introduced to ‘indie r&b’ or ‘pr&b’, a genre Janet very much predicted and directly influenced. Proponents of the genre came out to praise her effortless melodies, breezy vocals and unusual arrangements that drew on many traditions. In particular, the stunning ‘Velvet Rope’ has become a touchstone; a rare moment when a pop star took control of her own career and forged an unusual and unprecedented path forward, finding success in the process.

First single ‘No Sleep’ plays right to this new audience. With its subtly trippy beats, casual melody and sensual lyrics it encapsulates the mood of 2015 r&b perfectly. The album is at its best when it plays in this sweet spot; ‘shoulda known better’ and ‘2 B Loved’ meander smoothly towards the groove while ‘Broken Hearts Heal’ takes the vibe down a few more notches, allowing Janet to reflect on the death of her brother and breakdown of her relationship over some gentle piano noodling. The more upbeat songs are generally less successful, though still enjoyable. The title track, ‘Damn Baby’ and ‘Burn It up’ make up the early group of songs destined to be released for radio and feature easy hooks and poppy, contemporary production. They aim for the dance floor, and may well succeed in luring people there, but none strike me as being classic and they concede too much to mainstream taste, which is out of sync with the rest of this very independent, single minded record.

And so ‘Unbreakable’ is, at times, a frustrating album. One of those frustrations is how sleepy Janet sounds. Of course, one of her great strengths has always been that laid back vocal style. She’s always been a quiet, thoughtful singer, which has worked well for both her dance numbers and the hush hush ballads. It’s also made her angry songs, of which there are plenty, even more impactful and unexpected in that context. Here though there is no anger or anything close to it. Janet sounds as sweet and seductive as ever but there are points where she’s far too tired and non committal for far too long. Jam and Lewis co-produced, as they have done throughout Janet’s career, and they have to be held partly responsible for not prising more intense, emotive reactions from her.

In many ways ‘Unbreakable’ is a modern slant on the same themes and subjects that inspired ‘The Velvet Rope.’ That record dealt with love and depression from the perspective of a young woman and ‘Unbreakable’ tackles the same topics from the vantage point of age and experience. 20 years on things seem less urgent and less world altering. Perhaps that’s why she Janet sounds so calm. The pessimism is replaced by, not quite optimism, but something approaching it. Insecurities still rise to the surface at points but the general mood is uplifting, certainly towards the end. The message behind ‘gonna B alright’ is conveyed in a somewhat contrived and cliched manner but it’s drenched in sincerity and truthfulness. ‘We all need a little love when we’re down in the dumps, but we’re gonna be alright.’ Who’s going to argue with Janet? ‘Unbreakable’ is the sound of someone who’s been through the wars of life and survived – not unscathed, but alive and content. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but ‘Unbreakable’ captures the sense of resilience and exudes the confidence that comes with experience – and it sounds perfect for 2015.

7/10

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