Janet Jackson’s forthcoming album Unbreakable is one of the most hotly-anticipated releases of the fall and long-awaited in more ways than one. In addition to it being the first Janet album in seven years (her previous album was 2008’s Discipline), it’s also the first time that the singer has worked with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis in nearly a decade (they last appeared on 2006’s 20 Y.O.).
Jam and Lewis have often felt like extensions of Janet herself, as they have helped craft her sound going all the way back to 1986’s game-changing Control and subsequent masterpieces like Rhythm Nation 1814, janet., The Velvet Rope, and All For You. Their return is part of the reason why Unbreakable is such a topic of conversation.
But another reason why there’s so much fervor surrounding Janet Jackson’s new album is the relative veil of secrecy that has surrounded it. We already know a handful of facts about it: We’ve heard the first single “No Sleeep” (and also seen the video), we know there’s also a song called “The Great Forever,” and we know that there’s a huge tour on the horizon. But thanks to a recent conversation EW had with Jam and Lewis, we now know a few more things about the new album.
“No Sleeep” almost didn’t make it.
The album’s first single began as something of an afterthought. “‘No Sleeep’ was basically called that because it was like five in the morning, and we had just completed a day of work and I was still awake, so I was playing around with some different stuff and came up with the skeleton of it,” explains Jam (whose birth name is James Harris III). The sliver of a tune was filed away until Lewis went looking for something on Jam’s computer and ran across the file. “He hit this track and it came on blasting, and Janet said, ‘Ooh, what’s that?’ I told her it was a track I did like two months ago, and she was like, ‘You didn’t play that for me!’ It wasn’t done, it was just kind of an idea,” Jam says. “So Terry asked me for a melody, and it evolved from there. Janet loved it—just the feeling that she got when she heard it is the feeling she wanted the fans to have. Just a warm, welcoming, sensual feel. But it was almost forgotten.”
There’s a song called “Night.”
The re-discovery process the trio of Jackson, Jam, and Lewis went through on “No Sleeep” showed up again when working on another song, and it ultimately hinged on Jackson’s physical reaction. “We did another song that’s just called ‘Night.’ We never really had an ending for it,” says Jam. “So I got this idea for an ending and told her about it. I worked on it a little bit, then I gave it to Terry, and we were playing her some stuff just to show her where we were at, and when that ending came on that she hadn’t heard, it was the same thing: huge smile, dancing around the room. She loved it. To me, as a collaborator, that’s to me the best feeling in the world when you get something that moves her like that. That’s what you want.”
Janet already had the Unbreakable concept in mind when she began working.
The sessions for the new album originated with Jackson explaining an idea for a concept with Jam and Lewis. “She revealed to us what her concept was, and as we always do, we just began making music,” says Lewis. “We don’t try to directly flesh out a concept until that time comes. We just try to get creative and start recording and do what feels good musically. She came with the concept, and that became the beginning theme of where we started.”
The album’s lyrics come from a deeply personal place.
Lewis says the Unbreakable idea will be wide-ranging and allow for Jackson to express quite a bit of herself. “It’s such a broad concept,” he explains. “You can think of it many different ways. Some people think of unbreakable as being hard, but I think unbreakable is just being able to be vulnerable and to be able to withstand what comes to you. She’s lived a lot of life in the last few years.”
The tour and the album were often being conceived concurrently.
Jam notes that there were days, particularly toward the end of the sessions for the album, that would find Janet working all day in rehearsals for the stage show and then reporting to the studio to finalize ideas for the record.
Unbreakable sounds unlike any past Janet Jackson album.
Both Jam and Lewis believe that fans will be surprised at the different versions of Jackson that show up on the album, but ultimately she’ll still be holding everything together. “I think it’s totally different from any of her other albums,” says Jam. “But it feels like her. At the end of the day, I go back to that. The thing about this album is there’s a lot of different places that it touches, but at the end of the day, it’s pure Janet.”