Unbreakable – A Track-by-Track Review


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Janet’s new album, Unbreakable, debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for the chart dated October 24, 2015, becoming her 7th #1 pop album.

Janet’s new number one album, Unbreakable, is one of the more uplifting music news stories of the year, heck even the decade, as it marks a comeback triumph for an artist who has now had chart-topping albums spanning four different decades (’80s, ’90s, ’00s and ’10s).  Some of her fans will be reluctant to call it a comeback though, claiming that Janet never really left.  But the reality is she did leave – for seven-plus years (since her last album release, 2008’s Discipline).

However, she’s back, and arguably with one of the best quality albums of her career.  In this album, Janet comes across as more self-assured, both lyrically and musically.   The songs certainly support the album’s title and theme, almost qualifying it as a concept album…even the more fun, dance-oriented tracks don’t stray too far lyrically from Janet’s message of self love, introspection and the desire for others to look inwardly themselves.

Admittedly, I was one of those questioning whether teaming with her long-time partners, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, would yield positive returns on this release.  That doubting sentiment was largely based on the decision to release the slow-burning mid-tempo groove “No Sleeep” as the album’s first single (which I still think wasn’t the best move, but oh well).  She followed that two months later with the album’s title track (and its best one) and then with the Missy Elliott assisted track, “BURNITUP!” (ironically, my least favorite) a week before the album came out.

With just those three songs to go on, I certainly had my doubts about this project.  However, the collective set of 17 tracks on Unbreakable erased all that doubt and combine to make this one of Janet’s best albums yet, or at least since 1997’s The Velvet Rope.

And that’s saying an awful lot considering her vast 33-year, 11-studio album legacy.

If there’s any complaint about this album at all, it’s that most of the tracks aren’t long enough, which is essentially a compliment, suggesting that Janet is leaving the album’s listeners, particularly her fans, yearning for more at each song’s end.

But all of this is coming from a long-time fan who couldn’t be happier that she’s given us an album that is musically very satisfying, with enough songs to fill two albums (and without all those less-than-a-minute-long interludes that she used to fill her previous seven albums…there’s only one on Unbreakable).

Will Janet remain at #1 beyond this first week, sell millions or win over many new fans with this release?  Likely not.  But it’s easy to imagine this same album selling twice as many copies as any of her last three albums had it come out, say, 12 years ago…like before the infamous Super Bowl 38 performance that doomed her career for the rest of the ’00s.

And at least her most die-hard fans seem to be enjoying it.

So without further buildup, here is my track-by-track review of the 17 songs that appear on the non-bonus version of Unbreakable:

  1.  “Unbreakable” (3:38).  This is my favorite track on the album.  Jam and Lewis went back to the tried-and-true formula that has worked for Janet for three decades now, taking her melodic vocals and layering them in harmony to give her a much fuller sound.  And the throwback melody on the chorus of this one is pure pop/funk candy.  R&B hasn’t seen sweetness like this in ages!  The song is a loving tribute to her lasting relationship with fans, friends, family or a combination of all three.  It could easily serve as a tribute specifically to brother Michael as he opened up his last studio album (pre-death) with a song by the same title.  Team Janet should release a video for this one quickly, and give us an extended version!  Rating: 9.5/10.

  2.  “BURNITUP!” feat. Missy Elliott (4:10).  Another track that screams old-school, this one is obviously aimed at the clubs.  In a throwback move, it even has injections of the rolling keyboard riff that populated Rhythm Nation 1814‘s tracks in 1989.  Unfortunately, the addition of Missy Elliott actually comes to the detriment of an otherwise decent track (if you can also get past the dated “White Horse” beat interpolation).  Missy’s lines (and yes she’s given cowriter’s credit for them) give her nothing more than hype-man status, as there’s nothing new or imaginative about anything she contributes.  But club heads won’t care, they’ll still love it.  Rating: 6.5/10.

  3.  “Dammn Baby” (3:55).  Continuing her new theme of intentional misspellings (see “No Sleeep”), this is another multi-layered club banger.  However, this one is better than Track 2, plus it’s slowed down by a few beats-per-minute and could easily pass for a 1990s-era dance track.  “Dammn” even borrows from her ’90s hit, “I Get Lonely” in a well-placed change-of-pace sample during the bridge.  In another era, this could’ve easily been a single release.  Today, it’ll likely only be heard in clubs (and people’s personal playlists).  Rating: 7.5/10.

  4.  “The Great Forever” (4:18).  With a vocal arrangement that’s reminiscent of her late big brother’s, this is where the songs begin to take on a more pop feel. Janet also expands her vocal range on this track, singing in a very effective low register during the song’s verses, which is reminiscent of her Rhythm Nation hit, “Love Will Never Do (Without You).”  She then transitions to her higher register during the chorus to bring the point home.  Lyrically, Janet leaves little doubt that she’s moving on from all the negativity that dogged her career over the past 12 years, even while others continue to dwell on it.  Rating: 7.5/10.

  5.  “Shoulda Known Better” (4:45).  I’ve always been one of those who contends that Janet can sing.  In fact, she carries a melody better than most (in my opinion).  Is she a powerhouse vocalist in the vein of a Whitney, Patti, Aretha or Mariah?  Heck no.   Nor does she need to be.  And this song is yet another demonstration of why.  Melodically, it’s one of the best tracks on the album, with flourishes of EDM to give it a contemporary feel (clubs will likely jump on it).  Lyrically, her Unbreakable theme is still intact, but with a bit of melancholy recognition that she may have been a little naïve in her younger years when she yearned for a better world, one that has as many or more of the same issues she sang about in Rhythm Nation 26 years ago (a fact she makes reference to in the last line).  This should be the next single.  Rating: 9/10.

  6.  “After You Fall” (4:47).  If you’re looking for any slow, sex-driven bedroom burners ala “Any Time, Any Place” or many of the songs on her last three albums, you won’t find them on Unbreakable.  The most compelling ballad on this album is a plaintive, melodic, piano-driven number that showcases Janet’s seemingly maturing voice and does so successfully.  It’s not clear whether the song is a message to someone in Janet’s life or to Janet herself when she asks “who’s gonna be there after you fall?”  But it could serve as a life lesson, particularly for anyone who has gone through as much as she has.  Rating: 8/10.

  7.  “Broken Hearts Heal” (3:42). If it’s not clear who this one is focused on after listening to a few of the opening lines, it’s certainly clear by this uplifting song’s rousing end when interpolations of the rhythm track from brother Michael’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” are perfectly weaved in.  I haven’t heard a better MJ tribute since his death, and this one comes from someone who makes it clear that her relationship with him was one that no one else could’ve possibly shared.  Like many of the tracks on the album, I’ve played this one over and over again.  Ironically, you might even shed a tear or two while your head bobs to the song’s driving beat.  Well done, Janet!  Rating: 8.5/10.

  8.  “Night” (4:14).  This club jam does the Minneapolis funk scene proud.  Jam and Lewis recall their roots very well here, and Janet’s layered, anthemic line “I woke up in heaven in the morning” is like a call to arms that gives “Night” the kind of nudge it needs to place this song in every dance club’s orbit.  Even the song’s funky throwback keyboard riff at the end (reminiscent of the one that finished Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in 1979) works well. Rating: 8/10.

  9.  “No Sleeep” feat. J. Cole (4:20).  The song that started this project off got a boost when J. Cole’s rap vocal was released in a featured version a few week’s after Janet’s solo one.  The track admittedly grows on you after a couple of months’ worth of listens (and with a nice video to accompany it).  I probably overreacted when I spelled doom and gloom upon first hearing the rolling thunder-and-rain loop that Jam and Lewis have used so often before with Janet.  But, after hearing “No Sleeep” in the context of the whole album, it all makes sense now.  Btw, this is the only song on the non-bonus version that lyrically alludes to anything sexual, a refreshing change-of-pace for Janet.  Rating: 7.5/10.

  10.  “Dream Maker/Euphoria” (2:46).  Janet continues the throwback theme with this R&B/soul number.  It’s another one of the songs that are too short in my opinion, clocking in at less than three minutes, leaving just enough time for two verses, two choruses, and no bridge.  The well-placed backwards-record playing loop at the beginning and end of the song take listeners back to that long-ago decade of the seventies, when music was far more imaginative, just like this track.   Rating: 8/10.

  11.  “2 Be Loved” (2:55).  Another short one, this funky track is more notable for its mature lyrical approach than anything else.  Yes, it’s a love song, but its phrasing is a notch above most of its kind, with lines like “I feel like you’ve been deleted, ’cause you lost your love.”  However, the maturity is more in the song’s approach to love than in the word choices, as Janet assures her lover that she’s not high maintenance, she just wants to be loved (like everybody else).  Rating: 7.5/10.

  12.  “Take Me Away” (4:18).  This is great uptempo dance/pop ala some of Janet’s best work of the early ’90s.  This song easily takes you back to “Escapade” or “Runaway,” not just lyrically or thematically, but with its decidedly pop melodic arrangement.  Add in a strong electric guitar riff near the song’s end and you have the makings of a pop top ten hit (if radio would give it a chance).  Rating: 8.5/10.

  13.  “Promise” (:57).  This teaser serves as the album’s only interlude.  I haven’t yet purchased the CD from Target, but Track 18 appears to be the fuller version “The Promise Of You.”  I’ll update this post when I purchase it, or ask readers to comment on what they’ve heard.

  14.  “Lessons Learned” (4:23).  A powerful song about the pain of abuse, and staying in an abusive situation.  The song’s easy groove belies its message, almost providing a healing salve for the wounds its lyrics describes.  Then Janet and her producers create a vocal arrangement that has her holding the notes for the chorus’ lines, “Nights are long, the pain so strong,” long enough to reinforce just how long those abusive nights can be (and how strong the pain is).  This is a clever piece of work from Team Janet.  Rating: 8/10.

  15.  “Black Eagle” (3:17).  The song sequencing and transitions on this album are noteworthy, and are best exemplified where “Lessons Learned” segues into “Black Eagle,” which itself is a two-song medley of sorts (imagine doing all that in just 3:17 and still pulling it off).  It’s also a tune that could easily fit in Janet’s ’90s repertoire of albums, or even those of the past decade. It doesn’t stray far from the Jackson/Harris/Lewis formula with its finger-snapped beats and uplifting messages, and it works as a great album cut.  Rating: 7.5/10.

  16.  “Well Traveled” (4:18).  With its unexpected use of the accordion juxtaposed against an anthemic “hey, ho” refrain, this song could easily spark a new genre: folk-funk.  Lyrically, it passes as a folk song.  Musically, it’s chorus is driven by a heavy drum beat that adds the funk element.  The title speaks for itself as a reflection of Janet’s long life in the public spotlight.  The combination of all these elements works well.  It’s a great singalong road-trip song, and one that – with a clever music video – could actually be a hit.  Rating: 8.5/10.

  17.  “Gon’ Be Alright” (3:54).  I read one critic’s review of this song where the author thought this was the most misplaced track on the album.  To the contrary, this uplifting, retro-soul pop/funk jammer does its best to bring home the album’s overall message of how an unbreakable spirit will always prevail, whether it’s Janet’s or anyone else’s.  Musically, it may be a little misplaced, as it goes completely retro with live drums, horns, and other real instruments (which should be welcomed in this day and age), as well as a funky late-’60s arrangement clearly inspired by Sly Stone and Larry Graham, while all the other tracks on the album date to more recent decades and technology.   But none of that matters, because this song in isolation works on all levels, and its message is in perfect harmony with the album’s.  Rating: 8.5/10.

With that, I guess there’s nothing else to say except go check it out for yourself (if you haven’t already) and let me know what you think.

To read about Janet’s big week of accomplishments, click here.

And as always, thanks for all the love and support!

DJRob

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5 thoughts on “Unbreakable – A Track-by-Track Review”

  1. Excellent review!! I haven’t heard the whole project yet, but you make me want to get it today! No 10’s though…you’re a tough cookie lol!

  2. This album is fabulous. We seem to agree on a lot of songs. Unbreakable is my favorite, then Broken hearts Heel, then Well Traveled, but I must say, you surprised me with your review of Burn it up. It is super hot, I love it. Also some other favorites are The Great Forever, Shoulda Known Better, Dream Maker, Love you for Life, 2B loved, Promise and but of course, No Sleep.

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