There is no pop star more underrated or under appreciated than Janet Jackson. She’s sold over 100 million albums worldwide. In the United States, she has 27 top-ten singles, and ten of those are number-ones. Her albums, from “Control” to “Rhythm Nation” to “The Velvet Rope,” were groundbreaking, fusing multiple music genres and pushing the envelope in creativity. Artists like Britney Spears and Beyoncé have cited Jackson as a major influence. Her 1996 album contract with Virgin Records was worth over $80 million, making her the highest-paid artist in history. By the late 90s, she was outselling Madonna and her brother Michael. Janet Jackson is actually iconic, a word abused by the Internet to the point of it becoming meaningless.
Despite Janet’s many achievements and contributions to pop culture, she’s been forced into the shadows, and all because of the infamous wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show. That incident got her blacklisted from radio and television, and her subsequent albums tanked in sales. Her legacy, which should have been on par with those of Madonna and Michael Jackson, has been almost completely erased from popular memory.
Janet is now back to reclaim that legacy with her first album in seven years, “Unbreakable” which was released Friday. Since she last released an album, the underrated “Discipline,” back in 2008, a lot has changed in her life. She married a Qatari billionaire and played fantasy “Real Housewives of Qatar” for a couple of years. She reportedly converted to Islam. And her brother Michael, also known as the King of Pop, died. These events play a major role in the sound and themes of “Unbreakable.”
Things have changed in the pop world as well. The last seven years have produced only three real superstars: Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. And Gaga is the only one with any real talent. The pop charts have become crowded by artists who either make mediocre music or have the charisma of a wet blanket — Demi Lovato, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Selena Gomez. Pop music is not what it used to be. Albums from the likes of Madonna and Janet Jackson feel like an oasis in the desert, if it’s a desert that plays an endless loop of “All About That Bass” and “Shake It Off.”
“Unbreakable” is very much a nostalgic record, looking to Janet’s past successes. Rather than returning to usurp her successors, Janet forgoes any attempt to make the album sound contemporary or produce any hits. Unlike a certain other hashtag-loving, down-with-the-kids pop icon, trends do not appeal to Miss Jackson. Instead, sonic references to Janet’s old hits pepper the album. “Dammn Baby” is even interrupted by a breakdown from “I Get Lonely,” a top-five hit from 1998.
Janet is a different woman this time around. By the early 2000s, she pushed sexuality to its limit in the pop sphere. Seductive whispers and cooing made up the majority of her sound in her later records. In many ways, Janet Jackson had become synonymous with sex.
That Janet is gone — possibly because of her alleged conversion to Islam in the last few years. Anyone expecting a “Throb” or “If” on the album will certainly be disappointed. Her signature breathy, seductive voice is still present, but the pearl-clutching smuttiness is gone. The closest we get is with the record’s lead single “No Sleeep,” a sultry mid-tempo tune about Janet staying up all night with her man.
Love, family and happiness instead occupy Janet’s mind. Her life experiences, both positive and negative, have given her a more maternal, advisory role, as seen on “Shoulda Known Better.” Calls to peace and love are most present on later tracks like “Lessons Learned” and “Black Eagle.” Just like her brother Michael, Janet has always been a socially conscious artist.
Michael’s presence is palpable on “Unbreakable” — “Broken Hearts Heal” is dedicated to him. On the title track and “The Great Forever,” Janet sounds uncannily like the Pop King, in vocal technique and tone.
And just like Michael, Janet has never been confined to just one genre, and that remains the same for “Unbreakable.” While most of the record consists of mid-tempo R&B grooves, Janet is not afraid to swerve into different genres. One of the most jarring, and best, moments is the Missy Elliot-featured “Burnitup!”, a blistering electronic track tailor-made for the dance floor. Piano ballads, hip-hop, guitar breaks and trance influences all find their home on “Unbreakable,” and, remarkably, it all works. It’s an album that takes risks and plays with genres more than any current pop star could ever dream of doing at all, let alone doing successfully.
Rather than engage in traditional album promotion tactics — talk show interviews, magazine covers, award show performances — Janet has instead opted to engage directly with her fans. Her 91-date world tour opened over a month ago, well before “Unbreakable” was released. It’s her first arena tour since 2008. The 34-song set list packs in every single one of her hits, from “Escapade” to “All for You,” yet another reminder of the unshakeable legacy Janet has left behind.
Gone for far too long, Janet (Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty) is back to reclaim her legacy with a terrific album and a sold-out world tour. In a world full of exhausting messes like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, we need icons like Janet to come back every so often and show everyone how pop music is really done.