This week, Janet Jackson returns after an extended absence. It’s only been seven years since her last album, Discipline, which isn’t long considering that D’Angelo’s 2014 release Black Messiah was his first album in 14 years. But it’s Janet’s absence from the forefront of pop culture which makes her return all the more welcome.
It’s hard to think of an artist who has sold more than 100 million records as underrated. Yet we often forget the fact that she recorded four consecutive albums that could be considered pop classics – and not just the kind of best-selling models that roll off the industry conveyor belt, but real gems sparkling with depth and ideas. Control, Rhythm Nation, janet., and The Velvet Rope made for an incredible creative streak. Madonna, her chief rival during the late 1980s and ‘90s, may have logged more hits, but the quality of her recordings wasn’t nearly as consistent.
Throughout those four albums, Janet created songs about personal and physical freedom, and dealt with issues surrounding bigotry and homophobia. She advocated that she is in control of her mind and body no matter what the Jackson family nor the church folks scandalized by her flirtation with bisexuality might say. Yes, her lyrics could be idealistic at times, and a little too on the nose. (See “Racism.”) Janet was a product of the late ‘80s, a time when musicians wore their political beliefs like a badge and it’s the actions of that era we seem to be returning to today.
Jackson’s openness about her sexuality remains the most difficult aspect of her career. Yes, we could pick apart the 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII appearance that led to a boycott of her Damito Jo singles at pop radio, and ask why the Grammys banned her while her white counterpart in that performance, Justin Timberlake, was allowed to attend. (A tangent: I remember how Timberlake made a clearly staged appearance with Usher at a televised NBA game — don’t ask me which one — because many of his black fans were so heated that Jackson suffered from the fallout more than he did. Of course, his career recovered.)
That controversy also coincided with an artistic decline. She had once used her pleasure principles imaginatively. With The Velvet Rope, she dipped into bondage, self-pleasure and heartbreak with a genuine mix of intellectual determination and lyrical coquettishness. But by All for You, her songs of love and sex had turned into the kind of predictable trope too often used in mainstream urban pop. That’s not to say that she didn’t create some good tracks.“So Excited” from 20 Y.O. definitely should have been a hit.
If its teaser tracks and pre-publicity are any indication, her new album will be more dynamic. (She also reunited with longtime producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.) There is “No Sleeep,” a love ballad in the tradition of “That’s the Way Love Goes.” More impressively, there’s a joyous pairing with Missy Elliott titled “BurnItUp!” And the title track is just the latest example of how she’s paid tribute to her late brother Michael’s influence through her vocal delivery and optimistic intent. Given all that she’s gone through, Unbreakable is an apt metaphor for her career.