After seven years away from the studio, Janet Jackson releases a new album, Unbreakable, on Friday.
Unbreakable feels like a response to those events, as well as some happier ones, in particular Jackson’s 2012 marriage to Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana.
Over 17 tracks, the singer talks about grief and depression, but also about love, loyalty and compassion. Most importantly, she stresses, friends will pull you through the hard times. Speaking to the BBC from New Orleans, Jimmy Jam revealed the stories behind the star’s signature songs, and picked his highlights from the new album.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY (from Control, 1986)
The lyric came up because of a relationship Janet had gotten out of [her marriage to soul singer James DeBarge, which was annulled a year earlier]. The concept was basically, “he used to do nice things for you, but what has he done for you lately?”
STATE OF THE WORLD (from Rhythm Nation 1814, 1989)
The Rhythm Nation album opens with a triptych of songs calling for action against poverty, racism and illiteracy. Among them is State of the World, which captures Janet’s growing horror as she witnesses homelessness, drug dependency and prostitution right on her doorstep.
THAT’S THE WAY LOVE GOES (from janet, 1993)
Beckoning towards the bedroom, Janet turned down the lights and turned up the heat on this slinky, seductive song, based around a sample from James Brown’s Papa Don’t Take No Mess. An unexpected change of style – lyrically and musically – it was the public’s introduction to a more adult Janet.
I’m a huge James Brown fan and I always thought it’d be cool to take something funky he did but actually make a song out of it. So that was the intention.
Everybody seemed to really like it but when I played it for Janet, she kind of said, “eh, it’s OK.” And so we moved on – because we were working on a ton of other things, too.
SHOULDA KNOWN BETTER (from Unbreakable, 2015)
25 years after State of the World, Janet realises how little has changed. “Why, why, why?” she cries over a pounding house beat, before making a renewed call for social action. “We won’t make excuses. We won’t take no abuses.”
When you’re young, you feel like: “I can change the world! I’m going to lead the revolution!” And then you look 25 years later and you go: “OK, I should have known better. The same problems still exist but there’s a different way to go about tackling it. It still involves mobilising people, but I can’t do it by myself.”
It’s just a wiser, more mature look at the reality of trying to make a positive change, a social change.