She really is, you know.
Janet Jackson suffered the steepest of career turnarounds following her Super Bowl halftime show wardrobe malfunction in 2004, practically becoming a pariah in the pop mainstream she once ruled.
She soldiered on -- first pretending/hoping it would blow over, then actively challenging her accusers with edgy, sex-themed songs. With "Unbreakable" (Rhythm Nation/BMG), Jackson finally seems like she's over it.
Maybe that comes with time or new perspective. Maybe it comes with marrying a billionaire Qatari businessman. In any case, Jackson finally seems like herself again -- actually an even wiser version of herself.
For "Unbreakable," she has teamed again with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, the producers who shepherded her rise to Jacksonian heights with "Control," and their partnership has seemingly restored both her confidence and her ambition.
"Unbreakable" is divided into two sides, which Jackson announces. The first side has her rolling out dance pop as savvy as any around.
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"The Great Forever" shows what she has learned from her late brother Michael about phrasing and drama, ratcheting up the song's power one step at a time, while "No Sleeep" shows that she hasn't forgotten how to mine a laid-back groove. "Dammn Baby" reminds us of her impressive history in this field by slipping bits of "I Get Lonely" into the breakdown. "Burnitup!" with Missy Elliott, is a hard-hitting dance floor delight, alternating stretches of smooth soul and thudding beats, not to mention Elliott's charming cameo.
However, it is "Shoulda Known Better" that shows how much Jackson has grown in her years away. It is politics you can dance to, declaring herself "ready for real solutions," spare and pretty to start and then building into a grand pop spectacle."I had this great epiphany," she says. " 'Rhythm Nation' was that dream. I guess next time I'll know better."
She sketches that out on Side Two, which is more experimental, more provoking.
In the simple, poetic "Black Eagle," she addresses the struggles of today, but goes with "All lives matter. . . . We all need to do better."
"Well Traveled" is the closest Jackson has come to arena rock since "Black Cat," though this is more lighters-ready Bon Jovi power ballad than in-your-face Van Halen. "Gon' B Alright," though, is twisted psychedelic rock, like she's ready to front Sly & The Family Stone.
Whether or not "Unbreakable" returns Jackson to the upper reaches of the pop world doesn't really matter. She has returned to making music, on her own terms, for the fans who still believe in her. As she sings in one of the album's most memorable tracks, "Broken hearts heal stronger."
THE GRADE A