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.
“No Sleeep,” Unbreakable’s first single, continues the sex-positive theme that has been her mainstay since 1997’s The Velvet Rope, but it’s an outlier — unlike Damita Jo, this album isn’t slicked by massage oil. The highlight “After You Fall” isn’t much more than a minimal piano and a hushed vocal that proves how big a small voice can be. In that song and “The Great Forever,” which starts with trip-hoppish electronics, Jackson considers how cruelly the world treats people who are kind and idealistic.
Some of the 17 songs shift between past and present: “Shoulda Known Better,” a muddled call for virtue (“We won’t accept excuses/We tolerate no abuses”), aims for U2’s spiritual liftoff in the chorus guitars; “Gon’ B Alright” consciously evokes the rousing funk of Sly & The Family Stone (whom Jam and Lewis sampled in Jackson’s 1989 “Rhythm Nation”) through horns, guitar and live drums; and “Dream Maker/Euphoria” pairs vintage Philly soul with clattering trap drums. But with the exceptions of “Dammn Baby” and “2 Be Loved,” both pretty explicit nods to DJ Mustard’s “ratchet” sound, Jam, Lewis and Jackson, who co-produced and co-wrote all the songs here, aren’t chasing or reviving trends. The funk jam that closes “Night” couldn’t have come from anyone else (except maybe Prince).
Jackson starts the album with “Unbreakable,” which is also the title of a song that began her brother Michael’s final album before he died in 2009 — the high chorus even sounds like something he might’ve written. His spirit appears throughout the record: J. Cole mentions him on “No Sleeep” (“Butterflies like MJ”); on “The Great Forever,” Jackson bends and chokes notes the same way her brother often did; and “Broken Hearts Heal” is clearly about him. She implicitly refers to the pain they shared growing up with an abusive father (“We danced and sang our way through most anything”) and the adult bond she has lost (“We can’t laugh together ’til we cry”). But crucially, it’s a happy song, which fits the album’s themes of resilience and community. Unbreakable is the mature album, free of commercial ambition, her all-too-breakable brother never made.