Janet Jackson struck gold–and platinum–when she asserted herself as mistress of her domain on the 1986 album Control. Her successes in the decades that followed included dominance of radio and MTV–with songs like the sparkling “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and the jittery “The Pleasure Principle”–spectacle-heavy world tours and provocative magazine covers that set tongues wagging.
Her most scandalous moment, the infamous wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, still informs debates over sex on television more than a decade later. But none of it would have happened without the forward-thinking blend of pop, soul and ladies-first energy that buoyed her to stardom. Through her collaborations with the R&B production powerhouse Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Jackson consistently released tracks that summed up the contradictions inherent in womanhood, while making listeners all along the gender spectrum want to shake their bodies.
Jackson’s new album, Unbreakable, out Oct. 2, is a collaboration with Jam and Lewis that marks her first studio release since 2008’s Discipline. As befits the title–and Jackson’s career–Unbreakable is a collection of songs about resilience and finding love both outwardly and from within. In keeping with her best work, it’s full of bravado and soul-searching.
The album opens with the title track, which could be read as a devotional of sorts to Jackson’s fans: “Never for a single moment/Did I ever go without your love,” she sings over a space-age synth, which blossoms into a sunny-day soul strut. Jackson’s voice, always notable for the emotion it could pack into even the simplest verse, is particularly suited to this type of laid-back R&B. As the song fades out, her voice comes back in, this time as tour guide: “Hello. It’s been a while. Lots to talk about. I’m glad you’re still here. I hope you enjoy.”
If Unbreakable stayed in the laid-back grown-woman gear of its opener, it would still be completely satisfying; the Jackson-Jam-Lewis crew has been crafting song-length sighs since Control’s sumptuous “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).” But instead, the machine kicks into overdrive with the help of rapper Missy Elliott, another strong woman of yesterday’s pop charts who experienced a renaissance in 2015. The hyperactive “BURNITUP!” has hype assistance from Elliott and accompaniment that brings together the 2010s’ chanting crowds and the 1980s’ skittering 808 drum samples. It serves as notice that Jackson hasn’t yet given up her private booth at the club.
Part of the joy of Unbreakable comes from the effortless way that it bridges the gap between new and old. There are nods to current dance-music trends like the frothy “Take Me Away,” which floats on a Calvin Harris–like cloud before culminating in a ripping guitar solo, and the splashy “Night.” There are also throwback ballads like the intimate “After You Fall” and the luscious “Dream Maker/Euphoria.” Unbreakable also maintains the social consciousness that made Rhythm Nation such a powerful statement 25-plus years ago: “Shoulda Known Better” takes on the present-day state of affairs, with Jackson echoing the Thriller track “Human Nature” of her late brother Michael.
Unbreakable closes with “Gon’ B Alright,” a thumping, clamorous funk jam that recalls Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher”–it’s a party, and Jackson sounds thrilled to be head hostess. The lyrics are comforting and joyous, a boisterous reminder that while Jackson’s been through a lot, she’s survived. And so can those listening at home, as long as they remember to take control and dance.
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