“I woke up in Heaven in the morning/With the biggest smile upon my face.”
Those are the opening lines to Janet Jackson’s infectious song “Night” from the irresistible new album “Unbreakable” out today from her own label, Rhythm Nation Records. But those lyrics also describe the feeling this morning for many Janet fans, who awoke knowing that her first album of new material in seven years was waiting.
And make no mistake: This album is for the diehard fans who stuck by her through the Super Bowl fiasco, her beloved brother Michael’s death, breakups, blacklisting and more challenges that befell Janet over the past decade. The opening song “Unbreakable” is a soulful tribute to her fans. She sings, “The world can’t break down the connection/Cause our love is divine/and it’s unbreakable.” So it turns out the album’s title is not Janet bragging that she’s unbreakable; rather, it’s a heartfelt fan appreciation.
The album feels like a natural companion to her introspective masterpiece “Velvet Rope.” The arrangements are diverse, from a spare piano accompanying Janet’s whisper smooth voice on “After the Fall” to the house-infused “Night” to the rollicking dance smash “BURNITUP!” featuring Missy Elliott and her memorable rap (“kitty kat, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow”) to a country-influenced ballad “Lessons Learned.” It’s a more reflective and mature Janet, singing mostly about love but also loss, on the poignant “Broken Hearts Heal,” a tribute to Michael, who died in 2009. “Life feels so empty/I miss you much,” she sings, while reminiscing about dancing and doing chores with her big brother. It’s a tearjerker.
On “Shoulda Known Better” she reflects on 1989’s iconic “Rhythm Nation 1814” in which she eschewed pop confections for socially conscious themes. Revisiting that era, she sings, “I had this great epiphany/And rhythm nation was the dream/I guess next time I’ll know better.” She’s coming to terms with growing older and realizing that 20-somethings don’t have it all figured out after all. She wanted to rally a nation of like-minded individuals to overcome social ills like racism, bigotry and poverty. Twenty-five years later, those problems persist. But Janet still wants to fight, singing “Part of the revolution/We won’t accept excuses/We tolerate no abuses.” Though she realizes now that change comes slower than she once thought.
She wisely closes the album on an upbeat note, the giddy “Gon’ B Alright,” which is clearly influenced by the Jackson 5. After so many years fighting to make it on her own and outdo her brothers, it’s refreshing to hear Janet embrace her family’s legacy and give a shout-out to them.
Thankfully, Janet has moved beyond the graphic and sometimes unfortunate lyrics from previous albums 2006’s “20 Y.O.” and 2008’s “Discipline,” in which she sang about her “spot” and “first-day period.” She is joyfully reunited (at last!) with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, aided occasionally by Dem Jointz and the album feels like it was years in the making and well worth the wait. The fact that Janet is not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ought to be a national scandal. She’s proven yet again that she can sing, dance, write, inspire — and sell out arenas on an extensive world tour all at age 49. Artists from Beyonce to Britney, Pink to Usher, FKA Twigs to Tinashe have cited Janet as a primary influence. (Beyonce even dressed as Janet for Halloween last year.) She’s sold an estimated 160 million records, won every award imaginable and survived the racist backlash to her Super Bowl performance to reemerge as a relevant and powerful voice more than 30 years into her career.
“Unbreakable” is a contradiction — at once sophisticated and silly; danceable and melancholy; affirming and haunting. But Janet makes it work and delivers her best album since 1997’s “Velvet Rope.”
As Missy Elliott reminds us in her rap, “Miss Jackson, she wear the crown.”