Likes: The Great Forever, Shoulda' Known Better, Night, Gon' B Alright
Dislikes: Burn It Up!
Overall: Back to the strong suit of lyrical social consciousness; musically, it lost my attention
11 years ago, Janet Jackson endured a ridiculous backlash and blacklisting after her breast was accidentally shown during her Superbowl halftime performance. The incident nearly, if not actually, ruined her current album, Damita Jo's, chances of getting the acknowledgement it deserved. Over the next 4 years, Jackson would break from her artistic formula of working principally with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and release 2 records (2006's 20 Y.O. and 2008's Discipline) her fans would find unflatteringly aberrant and insipid. She also left Virgin Records after 13 years for Island, only for the relationship to dissolve in 14 months. For the first time, Jackson was a free agent. In 2009, she suddenly lost her brother, Michael, and her long-time courtship with producer Jermaine Dupri ended. Rumblings of new material eventually quieted and 6 years went by. Some worried that this string of events either indicated or led to a vanishing of Jackson's musical interest or inspiration, and they wondered when they would hear from her again. This past spring, word of a project and tour finally came, and the Unbreakable era began. What would she say or address? What would the music sound like?
Jackson went *Christina Aguilera voice* back to basics, reuniting with Jam and Lewis (with some additional production by Dem Jointz and Tommy McClendon) and trading in what became an expected staple (i.e. throbbing sexuality, no pun intended) for the old one, focusing mainly on social justice and the human spirit. "The Great Forever" arguably has a double meaning, with implicative lines about her nuptials to Qatari entrepreneur Wissam Al Mana getting press and the fight for marriage equality. On "Shoulda' Known Better," she sings with disillusionment about how societal strife overwhelmingly remains, despite all the efforts to combat it and how reform now seems like an idealistic dream of her youth: "I had this great epiphany, and rhythm nation was the dream...I guess I shoulda' known better." This disheartened rumination is expressed over a pulsating, conversely uplifting cadence and a still hopeful, alternative take on her key phrase: "Awakening a better choice, it only starts if you lift your voice and say 'I shoulda known better, and so, next time I'll know better.'" This song had me in my feelings; so many times, I've been an emotional blur of frustration and sadness over the perils of the world, thinking "It's useless to care. It's useless to fight. Nothing's going to change." On "Black Eagle," Jackson challenges us to learn more about each other's respective struggles and increase our compassion, if for no other reason than we might need someone to be empathetic towards us one day. It's smooth, mellow and she's cooing softly, but we're getting lyrically chastised and sent to the principal's office. The contrast is almost funny. "Promise of You" encourages us to rise to our occasion, both as individuals and citizens.
My central issue with Unbreakable (yes, I have one, so sue me) was that it was hard for me to stay with. I mentally checked out after "Night" and had to consciously focus for the rest until "Gon' B Alright." Worsening matters was that I straining to hear Jackson clearly (thank goodness the lyrics were in the liner notes). I know that comes with her app, but it was a factor. Between inaudible words and a composed vibe, keeping up didn't come naturally. Nothing slammed like "Black Cat," grooved like "That's the Way Love Goes" or got me pumped for the day like "Come On, Get Up." The record needed a couple of shots of espresso for me. Though I love a good J.J. sheet warmer, I thought it was a wise and striking move to largely refrain from sexual content; there was nothing to distract from her timely message. Hopefully, we will heed her urging this go 'round. For those who are too young to fully understand why Janet is viewed as an icon, they will hear now.