With the possible expectation of a few instances of sibling estrangement, many believe that the formative bond forged between brothers and sisters is close-knit. Michael and Janet Jackson proved this convincing argument in plain sight for years, particularly with the undeniable chemistry the two global icons shared in the Grammy-winning music video for their “Scream” duet in 1995. Their deep connection would gain greater visibility to the world on October 2, 2015, when Janet released Unbreakable, her first new album since the unexpected death of her brother and the King of Pop six years earlier, and her first full-length LP in seven years.
As the title suggests, Janet, a frequent media target, has and will always be able to withstand an attempt to break. Simply put, she is a strong individual who cannot be broken, even when those in power have tried to tarnish the career she built on her own merits. But Unbreakable has a sizable parallel to Michael and his tenth and final album Invincible. The title of MJ’s 2001 record means too powerful to be defeated or overcome, remarkably similar to the bulletproof definition of Damita Jo’s eleventh album. The most obvious linkage between the two distinctive albums is that the opening tracks share the same title.
On Invincible’s opener, co-produced by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Michael wears an indestructible armor to shield himself from the widespread of bullets shot by heinous media reports. The aggressive keyboard playing of Jerkins interplays with the robust vocal performance of Michael, who repeatedly associates himself on this track with an immortal persona. In turn, Janet, who reconnected with the dynamic songwriting and production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for the new material, executed an opener and titular track that has a dual significance.
At first glance, the meaningful lyrics have a relevant appeal to her loyalists who have tirelessly supported her through personal and professional highs and lows. But dissecting the context of the song under a different microscope, listeners might consider she is musing about the infinite tie between her and Michael. She makes reference to an important relationship that is “ever sacred, everlasting,” which could be indicative of the very special bond with Michael she is pledging to treasure even beyond his death. She gives the title track a more saintly affinity, noting that when she gets lost in the chaotic world, a guardian angel, possibly Michael, will always be there to steer her through.
Darkness and light often deviate from each other, though, in part, they also go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. These noticeable contrasting ambiances play significant roles on Janet’s and Michael’s albums. “Night,” eclipsing from Unbreakable, begins with a rapturous Janet rising from a refreshed repose, spiritedly singing, “I woke up in heaven in the morning / With the biggest smile upon my face.” It has a sublime dreamy house sound that helps interpret a message of indescribable love that manifested after a nocturnal embrace with a new flame.
In contrast, Michael’s “Break of Dawn” features beguiling bits of early morning and easy listening imagery: the chirps of bluebirds and gentle flutes floating through the air. Like “Night,” the Dr. Freeze co-produced track connotes an intense lovemaking session. But while Janet was infatuated by a brand new lover, Michael is already deeply in love with a woman that has continued to recapture his heart over and over.
Creating a contemporary Western standard isn’t a difficult task; particularly because it can be done expertly outside of the open range and away from the cattle. All it takes is really good storytelling. That said, Janet and Michael saddled up and headed out west for their own revival of wrangler music. “Whatever Happens,” the Carlos Santana-contributed number off Invincible, starts with the epic whistling of the spaghetti western film era before it embodies a Latin twang from the guitar licks of its respected feature star. It tells the ambiguous tale of a distressed woman and how her concerned lover attempts to console her through her troubles. She tries not to worry him much over her problems. She just asks that he not unclasp his hands from hers no matter what.
Miles away in another part of the countryside, Janet meekly rides over a tumbleweed of plucked guitar sounds and an eclectic form of adorned Western-style instrumentation for the guilt-laden “Lessons Learned.” It plays out the unfortunate aftermath of a domestic violence dispute, where the woman puts the blame on herself instead of the abusive man. He attempts to remedy the results of his monstrous behavior by using not his own words to apologize, but those of a penitent musical entity, that he feels can better articulate his remorse.
Janet’s “Take Me Away” and Michael’s “Don’t Walk Away” are two stylistically separate compositions that exist in different tempo galaxies but both flirt with the theme of escapism. Having a familiarity with genres such as electronic and rock from previous records (“Black Cat,” “Feedback”) Janet applied the two extreme sounds to the former track that has a catchy chorus about retiring to nirvana with a desired partner. The latter, co-helmed with Teddy Riley, is a plaintive ballad where Michael is stricken with romantic pain. He realizes that a rocky relationship is almost doomed for salvation and relies on his weeping timbre and aching pleas as a final attempt to persuade his lover from leaving.
Other songs on Janet’s Unbreakable seem more straightforward and intentional in honoring the legacy and memory of her brother. “The Great Forever,” a maturely written headline to all those prying naysayers and critics who were overly concerned about her personal life, hears Janet’s voice embodying the unfading vocal phrasing of Michael. Whereas on “Broken Hearts Heal,” blatantly inspired by the treasured records from her brother’s esteemed career, Janet nostalgically recalls fond memories of growing up together and promises to see him again in the next life.
Unbreakable wasn’t just nuances of Michael’s Invincible and intimate songs written during a period of grief. It’s about a respected artist who had comfortably settled into her earned place in a fickle industry that she joined more than three decades earlier. Unbreakable consists of 16 well-crafted songs, and one interlude (“Promise”) that deftly demonstrates her versatility and confidence to produce music that doesn’t stretch her too great but alerts the world that she hasn’t lost touch with its ever-changing soundscape. Songs that best illustrate her resilience to that career point were the piano-based “After You Fall” and the ‘70s arena anthem “Well Traveled.”
Missy Elliott and J. Cole make up the shortlist of guest spots on Unbreakable, from appearing on the inferno dance siren “BURNITUP!” to the thundering quiet storm and lead single “No Sleep.” The latter, featuring the Dreamville Records chief, flew to the pole position on the Billboard Adult R&B Airplay chart for 12 non-sequential weeks. That move secured Janet her second number-one single and biggest hit after The Velvet Rope’s “I Get Lonely” on the same chart in 1998.
Unbreakable also put Jackson’s name in the Billboard history books when it debuted at the top of the popular 200 albums chart. Opening with 116,000 equivalent album units, the LP crowned Jackson as the third act behind Barbara Streisand and Bruce Springsteen to have number one albums in the last four decades: ‘10s, ‘00s, ‘90s, and ‘80s.
In retrospect, while Unbreakable, for the most part, is a conscious effort to showcase Janet in the most mature and content light, the album in sort, pays a beautiful tribute to an important figure in her life and to the world who was also unbreakable.
Revisit Unbreakable by Janet Jackson below.