Photos from previous Janet shows on this tour via Janet Jackson's Instagram
An argument is taking place outside The Forum in Inglewood, California. It's Friday night, Janet Jackson is headlining in 20 minutes, and two fans are determined to prove who is the bigger devotee. Each is wearing a t-shirt from the 1993-1995 Janet World Tour, but they're disputing whose is the real deal.
"I got mine at Madison Square Garden," asserts the six foot something man with manicured hair and a determined expression.
"I got mine when I saw her in Vegas," responds a girl with tight cornrows and a seductive slash of red lipstick.
"Does yours have a date on the back?" asks the male fan, displaying his proof.
"Obviously!" says the other, turning to show hers. It's a stalemate.
At that moment a third fan walks past sporting a different Janet Jackson tour shirt from yester-year. This time the Rhythm Nation tour from 1990, except this fan wears a glaring error: his t-shirt bears the date 1985.
"Oh my God—did you see his shirt?" asks the girl as he struts past.
"Yes! That tour wasn't even until 1990! That shirt is so fake!" The pair embrace.
Janet Jackson fans are die-hard. It's been four years since her aforementioned Number One's tour, and seven since her last record, Discipline, but her latest, Unbreakable—which her current world tour is in celebration of—proves the star's staying power and enduring appeal. It's a record that feels indisputably Janet Jackson: She hasn't roped the latest producers du jour, knocking together an album of on-trend tracks (*cough* Madonna hiring Diplo and Avicii for Rebel Heart *cough*). She's not incorporating EDM into her oeuvre, rather she's opted to work with her old school collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on every single track, crafting a seductive record of primarily mellow R&B and dance pop. She's in her comfort zone and it still sounds so sweet. Accordingly upon its release, Unbreakable slid in at number one with minimal promotion and fanfare. She avoided splashy mag covers, side-stepped the talk show circuit and even pulled out of an iHeart Radio Festival appearance. Commercial suicide? Nah, she's all good.
Debut track "No Sleep" might be a slow love song about a long distance relationship, but it also hints at her raunchy history—even if she's toned it down slightly (she gives a near blushing laugh when J Cole suggests they become "friends with benefits"). It's also her first album since the loss of Michael, a subject Janet mulls over in "Broken Hearts Heal," reminiscing about their childhood ("We made up songs to do our chores to"), and revealing her devastation along the way ("It was in the summer that you left me / The fall and winter never felt so cold"). At points—most notably during "The Great Forever"—her vocals sound indistinguishable to Michael's own tones and during during "Scream" she looks skyward as his lyrics boom out to the 17,500-strong crowd.
"There's nowhere that I'd rather be than here in this moment…" the singer says in a near warrior roar as the lights go down and an opening montage begins. "If I could go to the future I would take only one thing: It's be you! My fans! Some bonds are just unbreakable," she gushes and the audience erupts.
For the next hour and a half, Janet serves up master class in performance perfection. Her set is streamlined, minimalist, the stage set up, parsed back with kaleidoscopic patterns providing a frequent backdrop. Sure, she's backed by a live band and a small fleet of dancers, but ultimately there's just a stage and Miss Jackson.
With a career spanning four decades, her latest album marks her eleventh offering: 10 solo Billboard number one singles under her belt (out of an impressive 78 released so far), Janet has a wealth of material to showcase and she does so without skimping on detaills—even as she belts out 34 of her biggest tracks with impressive speed. Some songs are mashed together in a mega-mix, but as she whips through "BURNITUP!," "Nasty," "Feedback," and a medley of "Miss You Much," "Alright," and "You Want This," she's dancing out every beat, her lion's mane of hair bouncing and blowing (God bless a gale force wind machine), her lyrics exhaled with apparent ease. When she does allow a moment's pause the screams of appreciation are shrill and deafening.
Surprisingly for an arena show delivered by a megawatt star there'se exactly zero costume changes—her uniform for the evening is a pair of low hanging harem pants and a futuristic military style jacket dripping in gold necklaces. While it's been speculated that her tour attire is deliberately low-key due to Janet's rumored conversion to Islam, the effect here is there's no chance for the audience to be dazzled and distracted by feathers and rhinestones and alternate scene-setting, or whatever other top tier pop stars employ to boost their onstage wow factor. She doesn't need flashy costumes—or maybe Janet just doesn't want to be upstaged by a stray nipple and has made a conscious effort to create the most wardrobe-malfunction-proof outfit possible.
Also notably absent from a show this size: a roll call of A list cameos—from Miley to Taylor this kind of drop in has become de rigueur, giving an extra oomf to tomorrow's column inches. But there's no Mary J Blige or Lisa Kudrow. Instead, all the stars are in the audience, transfixed: there's Oprah Winfrey, Channing Tatum, and Beyoncé dancing with Blue Ivy by the sound desk. At 49 Janet still has her If and Rhythm Nation routines down to a tee and you can practically hear Bey's penny drop: "I need to still be able to do the 'Single Ladies' routine when I'm 49?!"
Janet races around the stage, she thrusts, she sings—her infamously whisper-delicate vocals are at one point drowned out by the audience as we sing along to "Again." And she's composed throughout—not missing a beat when a t-shirt bearing her likeness is thrown directly in her face during "Any Time, Any Place."
As the title track of her new album concludes the show, Janet thanks her fans and family (Katherine, La Toya, and Joe watch on). She sounds humble and looks emotional as she takes a bow. Janet wowed us, aroused us even (most notably during "Control" and "Throb"), but makes the baying throngs feel sincerely appreciated. With her 90 minutes up, I'm compelled to buy a tour t-shirt to commemorate the experience. Having been a Janet buff since the 90s where my ears were opened to the singer's already impressive back catalogue via The Velvet Rope, I'm almost ashamed to have not seen her in concert until now. I pick out a customized design, exclusive to The Forum: there's no way any super-fans will be able to deny that I saw Janet Jackson here and now.
Seamus Duff adores JJ, obviously. He's on Twitter.