Janet Jackson’s voice is a flute in an orchestra of trumpets and trombones. Unlike her ’80s coequals Madonna and Whitney Houston, Jackson had little success at the start of her career, especially given the expectations that came with her last name: Her first two albums sold badly and even worse -- the type of performance that today would result in a terminated contract. Then she fired her father as manager and, on the 1986 breakout Control, teamed with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who smartly paired her small voice with beats that boomed through lower registers, and helped her write defiant songs that contained a kind of top 40 feminism. Her career was lit: Control and its three successors each sold more than 10 million copies.
But the albums she has released since the 2004 Super Bowl, where she exposed her breast during the halftime show and ignited a shitstorm, turned her career sales chart into a bell curve: It inspired the invention of YouTube and boosted TiVo sales but buried her own, as TV and radio seemed to blacklist her. She hasn’t had a top 10 single in the United States since 2001. But none of those songs was a hit in European countries less ashamed of the body either, so maybe it wasn’t just the “wardrobe malfunction.” She’s 49, and even if she wanted to cadge a visit with the Kardashians, pop culture has left her behind. Which means that for Unbreakable, her first studio album since 2008, she brought back Jam and Lewis not to regain the glory of 1986, but to work with the people who know her best. There’s nothing like a sure hit here, just expert adult-contemporary R&B, front to back.