Janet Jackson continues her trek down the comeback trail with this past week’s release of another track from her new album, Unbreakable, entitled “Burnitup!” featuring Missy Elliott. It pairs Jackson with the legendary rapper (again) and previews this Friday’s release of the pop superstar’s long-awaited and highly anticipated 11th studio album (excluding greatest hits sets), which has been hyped now for the better part of the past three months.
Depending upon what other albums are released that day (October 2), Janet has a good chance to début at the top of the Billboard 200 album chart. That would make Unbreakable her 7th #1 album (and her 9th to reach the top two). While Janet’s crowning on the chart may not be a fait accompli (to borrow a line from first single “No Sleeep”), it’s certainly achievable given how much easier it is now to get a #1 album (there have already been 31 in 2015). This year’s chart-toppers have reached #1 by scanning anywhere from a measly 40,000 units to a more impressive 500,000 copies during their début weeks. My guess is that Ms. Jackson’s numbers will likely be somewhere on the lower end of that spectrum, but high enough to place her at #1 for the week, barring any other major album release that day, or a strong showing by an existing set.
So if Jackson’s Unbreakable does reach #1 on the album chart, will it signify the beginning of a true comeback for the artist? Or will it be a short-lived, one-week blip at the top reflecting the interests of only her true die-hard fans who will likely jump on it the first chance they get. If the performance of the album’s first few singles are any indication, it seems that Janet has a long road ahead. “No Sleeep,” was released in late June ( later enhanced by a remix featuring popular rapper J. Cole) and peaked at #63 on the Hot 100, spending only two weeks on the chart. Then the title track was released September 3 and has yet to even chart.
Now there’s the club-thumping Missy Elliott collaboration “Burnitup!” (listen to the YouTube audio stream below) which hit the street on September 24. Of the three releases, “Burnitup!” would seemingly be the best bet for any sustained success since it features a much-loved Elliott (who proved just how much she was missed at this past year’s Super Bowl halftime show, where she stole the show with a performance of her own classic “Get Ur Freak On”).
But if “Burnitup!” follows the weak chart performances of Unbreakable’s first two singles, or if the album’s sales fall much short of expectations, will it mark the beginning of the end for Janet as a relevant pop artist (if that hasn’t happened already)?
Before answering the question, one must first ask what are those sales expectations – particularly in a year where only one 2015 album has even sold a million copies (Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late). To expect Janet’s album to reach platinum status in a weak sales environment like this one may already be asking too much. Heck, even selling gold (half million) might be a lofty goal for an artist who hasn’t released new material in nearly eight years and who hasn’t garnered much, if any, radio support with the first few singles from her album.
A further lowering of expectations may be necessary when considering the fact that Janet may not even be targeting today’s youth-dominated, music-consuming public with this release. The first two songs, “No Sleeep” and “Unbreakable,” were clearly adult-leaning R&B fare, with “No Sleeep” topping Billboard’s radio-based Adult R&B chart for over a month (it’s still at #1 there). In a previous djrobblog article, I touched on the dismal performance of “No Sleeep” on the main Hot 100 chart, which factors in sales and streaming along with airplay. In hindsight, these metrics may not even matter to Jackson or her legion of fans, many of whom are – like Jackson – people of a certain vintage who are just happy that this iconic artist is still releasing new music 33 years into her legendary recording career. As an indicator of her fans’ undying loyalty, a friend of mine recently conducted an informal Facebook popularity poll – he does so each week for different artists – this one pitting Jackson vs. Beyoncé. Janet won in a landslide, despite the younger artist’s more recent success and immense popularity among today’s music consumers.
And it’s that kind of loyalty that’s likely fueling Jackson’s choices these days. Her decision to eschew today’s hottest young producers (at least for these first few tracks) and go with her long-standing creative partners, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis, clearly demonstrates that it’s not just about record sales anymore for Janet. Unlike some other artists of a certain age, who will remain nameless, Janet is sort-of growing older with her audience (and her producers) and seemingly unapologetic in doing so.
This kind of mature approach to creativity and marketing ought to be celebrated in an era where, in order to sell records, particularly for women – and even more particularly black women, artists usually have to reduce themselves to scantily clad, big-booty sex hens (again, nameless) to achieve commercial success. And while Janet certainly is no stranger to baring her midriff and touching on subjects of the bedroom as her past albums have attested, she appears to have moved past those shackles as a more self-affirmed, mature artist in 2015.
And it’s that self-affirmation and strength that is likely fueling Unbreakable, as its title suggests. When an artist can look back at her projects over the past 33 years (since her self-titled début album was released in 1982) and count among them some of the biggest successes of her era, whether her latest release reaches #1 or goes gold or platinum is probably immaterial. Janet Jackson will be 50 years old on her next birthday, and maybe – just maybe – Unbreakable is the album it’s supposed to be for an artist of that demographic, whether it tops the charts or not.
What do you think?
To see where Janet ranked in the djroblist of the Greatest Black Musicians of All Time, click here. To see where her legendary producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis rank on the djroblist of the Greatest Black Producers of All Time, click here.
And check out the official video for “No Sleeep” below.
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