It was a sad thing to watch Janet Jackson’s fingers slip so rapidly from the pulse of contemporary pop music. Where exactly those fingers landed isn’t much of a mystery; in their own way, each one of her noughties albums strove to introduce her to a new generation as an empty-headed purveyor of perversity.
As a hallmark of her music, the potency of Jackson’s unbridled sexuality inarguably peaked on 1997’s The Velvet Rope, in which waltzes with pansexuality and S&M fantasies kicked away the dirt to reveal a crushing loneliness that was later sated through New Age musings about watering our spiritual gardens.
Jackson found new ways to keep moist on a series of glibly optimistic follow-up records, starting with 2001’s All For You and ending with 2008’s Discipline. Yet as a continuation of The Velvet Rope’s narrative, her lyrical focus on coitus could theoretically have been an effort to hush those that see sexual liberation as a mere veil for a tortured soul.
The problem was that the emotional anguish that once ran in tandem with Jackson’s sexual explorations had no real thematic successor, resulting in a decade of shockingly shallow music from a once innovative artist.
Fans left numb by a decade of dead-eyed studies in sexuality had every reason to be skeptical of “No Sleeep” – the first single from Unbreakable, Jackson’s eleventh studio album. The song is a brazen throwback to slippery nineties sex jams, complete with a breathy vocal from Jackson and a guest verse from rapper J. Cole.
Although not particularly ‘dark’, the lyrics aspire to more than come-hither titillation, adding nuance to an account of long-distance love by detailing the sky-high expectations of those involved (“Forty-eight hours of love / It’s gonna be a weekend marathon”) which up the stakes to near-unattainable levels.
(There’s also a fabulous moment during J. Cole’s rap when he notes that the sun’s coming up and a bemused Janet murmurs “Already?”. You just know she’s lying there with a single breast popping out of her sweater, having barely tired of foreplay.)
The track’s complexities are just one of many treats in store for long-suffering fans. Kicking off ‘Side One’ of the record with a nostalgic swirl of pitched-up vocal samples, hip-hop percussion and underplayed horns that’s warmer than the sum of its parts, the title track is a spangled celebration of their continued support: “The world can’t break down the connection / ‘Cause our love is divine / and it’s unbreakable”.
Unbreakable doesn’t attempt to recreate the industrial beats of Jackson’s biggest hits, but the club-friendly “Dammn Baby” – with its grubby bassline fighting off Jackson’s digitally-swollen voice for supremacy – does a solid job of updating her sound for a 2015 audience. Meanwhile, the gentle disco of “Broken Hearts Heal” and the cocktail-lounge throb of “Night” serve to remind listeners of the singer’s open-hearted positivity.
Aside from these tracks, Unbreakable is a mostly mellow effort, although Jackson’s newfound confidence in both her voice and her songwriting partners Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis – here overseeing a Janet Jackson album in its entirety for the first time since All For You – means that not a single one of the set’s seventeen tracks goes by without leaving an impression.
Under almost any other circumstance, wedging an atypically sparse piano ballad like “After You Fall” between obvious highlights such as the airy arena-pop of “Shoulda Known Better” and “Broken Hearts Heal” would just seem irresponsible. Yet the song’s arrangement is so beautiful in its simplicity, and Jackson’s voice is so effortlessly confiding in between crestfallen sighs, that it never feels like a rude interruption.
Jackson reinstates her dreams of a Rhythm Nation on “Shoulda Known Better” with a slight sense of embarrassment: “I don’t want my face to be / that poster child for being naive.” It’s a brave admittance, and her disappointment with the state of the world might explain the vacant sex drone that the noughties inherited.
By the record’s end, it’s clear that Janet Jackson is still in love the possibility of a united world, but her assertion that “critics just wanna talk” suggests a fear of the media’s cynicism. The funny thing is that with Unbreakable, for the time in years, she’s finally given them a reason to listen.