Janet Jackson kicks off World Tour in Vancouver, sings all the Hits
A newly demure Janet Jackson started her Unbreakable World Tour at Rogers Arena here on Monday night. She was dressed in white and covered, like her dancers and musicians, from shoulders to shoes. And she avoided one big subset of her songwriting: her salacious, sometimes kinky whispers. That left Ms. Jackson, 49, to play the many other, less titillating roles that have given her major hits and made her an enduring influence across pop and R&B.
It has been four years since Ms. Jackson toured, and seven since she released a studio album; she has announced the impending release of a new one, “Unbreakable.” In 2012, Ms. Jackson married a Qatari businessman, Wissam al-Mana, and largely disappeared from public view before resurfacing to tour. Her Vancouver concert included three unreleased songs and the insinuating “No Sleeep,” the first single from “Unbreakable.” The concert’s finale, a ballad with Motown roots, was presumably the album’s title song; it praised enduring love, announcing, “It’s unbreakable.”
In songs and videos as early as her 1986 album “Control,” Ms. Jackson staked out possibilities that have been seized by many younger hit makers. Her songs with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, her longtime collaborators in songwriting and production, extrapolated from both Michael Jackson and Prince — then seen as rivals — while adding the Olympian optimism of Diana Ross and her own increasingly explicit eroticism. But even her risqué details were usually proffered to a man she loved, making romance carnal.
In Vancouver, her Unbreakable tour set arrived as medleys that touched on as many hits as possible, grouping the songs by persona and tempo. She was the woman taking charge (funk), the joyfully loyal lover (upbeat pop), the ballad singer, the woman left lonely (midtempo R&B), the party girl (dance-club beats), the rocker (with guitar up front) and, in the end, the idealist.
She also established her hip-hop connections. The opening song, a new one about D.J.s and dancing, had Missy Elliott rapping (on video) in praise of Ms. Jackson, and Ms. Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” was updated with a bit of Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice,” which had sampled that song. J. Cole, also on video, rapped on “No Sleeep.”
Most of the songs based their arrangements on the album tracks, propulsive and bustling. Yet when the band was pared back for ballads, Ms. Jackson’s exposed voice was still secure, never as delicate as she could make it sound. The rock songs included “Scream” as a duet with the voice of Michael Jackson; she belted it with a raw urgency.
Life is still a line dance for Ms. Jackson. For most of her concert, she was flanked by dancers in white who staked out geometric formations and usually echoed her every angular move: the jutting elbows, the quick head turns, the canted legs, the precise hip twitches, some of them familiar from the choreography of her old video clips. The dancers are her retinue and her troops, maybe even her cult, a vision of strength and solidarity even when Ms. Jackson was singing about one-on-one relationships.
As the concert neared its end, Ms. Jackson moved from the personal to the communal, summoning the staccato funk and calls for collective action of “Rhythm Nation”; suddenly, the number of onstage dancers more than doubled, all moving in sync. Next came a new song: a ballad that marched its way toward an anthem, part U2 and part trance music. The video screens showed photographs of the poor and homeless, as well as a shot with a Canadian message, with a protester’s sign addressing the country’s prime minister: “Harper: No Tar Sands Pipelines.” Her dancers pumped fists in the air, and she sang, “We won’t accept excuses / We tolerate no abuses” and “Make this world a better place.” It was the virtuous Janet Jackson, the one that was always there.