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Review: Janet Jackson’s Making Sexier Music Than Ever on ‘Unbreakable’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 2, 2015
Label: Rhythm Nation / BMG

Fan fiction: It’s 1985, and an apple-cheeked Janet Jackson perches on a chair across from her father. “You could be big as Madonna,” he says. Inside, Miss Jackson is screaming — at him, at all the hands constantly pawing and trying to tear off any little piece of her. Her voice is pillowy when she speaks. “I will be bigger than Michael,” she says, before firing her dad and flying to Minneapolis to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, associates of Michael’s only competition, Prince.

Crazy to think that it’s been almost 30 years since Janet Jackson danced out from under the shadow of both Madonna and her big brother Michael when she released the revolutionary Control. It was her third studio album, but it felt like her debut. Sure, the smile that melts snow was still there, but she was serious about her s–t. Instead of rhinestone-spangled gloves or stacks of jelly bracelets, she dressed in all-black ensembles usually topped with a blazer. Madonna’s perma-bedhead and “boy toy” belt were sexually sophisticated and therefore mostly confusing to elementary schoolgirls, but from the minute Janet barked, “Gimme a beat,” there was no mistaking her message. Girls were not a game to be played.

The older you get, the less compelled you feel to assert yourself all the time, though, and that’s probably why Janet’s albums — including Unbreakable, her just-released 11th — have proceeded to sound more effortless, and also sexier. “I lived through my mistakes, it’s just a part of growing,” she sings on the opening track before shrugging and reclining back into a swingy, breezy Sunday afternoon of a beat.

Thank goodness the gang — Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Ms. J — are back together again. All three produce the entire album, with help here and there from Dem Jointz (who helmed the highlight “Genocide,” among other tracks, on Dr. Dre’s Compton). For all the she-can’t-sing criticisms that have dogged her career, I actually prefer Janet’s vocals powder-soft like they are on “Black Eagle.” On Unbreakable she occasionally drops her register on a song like the shuffling “The Great Forever,” where the result sounds so much like Michael that it’s unsettling and kinda creepy. Mostly, the trio keep it super funky throughout, but at the family reunion does drag on just a couple songs too long.

But enough nitpicking; Unbreakable also enters a new candidate for the 2015 Banger of the Year race with “Dammn Baby,” which is so rhythmically contagious I couldn’t help two-stepping with a knife in my hand to it while making chicken salad in the kitchen. The tingly “Night” will soon be a new Pride after-parade staple. And “No Sleep,” even with the (bless his heart) not remotely sexy J. Cole, is a certified quiet storm classic.

Yet the best thing about Unbreakable is that it proves Janet can still surprise us. Who would’ve ever envisioned her slipping on a pair of boots and cowboy-cut Wranglers to sing “Lessons Learned,” a country-tinged ballad about co-dependency? Or that she and the boys would’ve gone full Nashville and let a steel guitar cry and a little twang curl the edges of her voice on “Well Traveled” (and that the whole thing would work!)?

Then again, back in 1986, no one expected sweet, baby-faced Janet to boss up, slam the door and snarl in some dickhole’s face, “No, my first name ain’t ‘baby,’ it’s Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.” From the easygoing sound of Unbreakable, she doesn’t snap like that anymore, but we still wouldn’t recommend trying her.