Janet Jackson Makes a Definitive Comeback with the Mellow, Consistent R&B of 'Unbreakable'

A laid-back and self-aware Janet turns in one of the finest albums of her career.

Janet Jackson is almost 50 years old, and with over 150 million albums sold into her 33-year recording career, is one of the best-selling female pop stars of all time. Yet she’s a freshly independent artist: After her career-long relationship with Island Records petered out following 2008’s Discipline, she’s now releasing music via her own Rhythm Nation records. Despite or because of her new situation — and doubtless the album’s lengthy and painstaking gestation period — her eleventh release, Unbreakable, is one of the most consistent of her auspicious career. Largely, it’s a laid-back album of disco and hip-hop-informed songs that blur reference points to form an out-of-time, stylistic compound that’s distinctly Jackson’s.

Songs like the title track, “Shoulda Known Better,” “Night” and “No Sleeep” sound wholly modern while recalling musical threads of the past three decades. Though the album lacks some of the distinct, sexually charged aggressiveness and fearless stylistic pivoting that characterized Jackson’s groundbreaking work of the 1990s (see The Velvet Rope and the excellent janet.), the sound and dramatic posture seems commensurate with a pop star of her stature and long resume. It’s certainly not uninspired. Unbreakable is exactly the kind of record a great artist makes when they feel like they have something to say, but nothing to prove.

Since the language of ‘90s R&B and ‘80s pop is fully baked into the DNA of some of the best Top 40 music of today, Unbreakable sounds largely in line with the pop music of younger artists. However, it feels like we are moving a step (or three) closer to the genuine article, reviving elements from a source text which have been lost in translation. Like Mariah Carey’s underrated Me. I Am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse of last year, Unbreakable feels like Janet successfully striving to take her place next to her imitators: from Ciara, to Tinashe, to Ariana Grande. Every song of the album was co-written and produced by Jackson’s legendary longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who helped Jackson distinguish herself as an artist in the 1980s. Jam and Lewis have clearly stayed in tune with trends, while remembering the dynamics of their old chemistry with Jackson.

Unbreakable, to its benefit, lacks the more aggro clubbiness that punctuated her past three albums. Second single “BURNITUP!” gets closest to this angular, early-’00s-derived sound (think “Sexy Back”), but it is salvaged by an infectious, unusually moody chorus. More successful as a club-friendly song is the DJ Mustard-informed, trap-cymbal-studded “Dammn Baby” which puts a inspired spin on a contemporary idiom but imbues it with distinctly Jackson-esque, nimble melodicism reminiscent of the best parts of All for You, the 2001 Janet album to which Unbreakable is closest in sound. Most of the other stylistic experiments on Unbreakable — most notably the EDM-tinged “Shoulda Known Better” — are carried off expertly. Even more questionable detours — the vaguely country-flavored ballad “Well Traveled,” and the cartoonish gospel-pop of “Gon’ B Alright” — have charming moments which make them feel like more than misguided flubs.

Jackson’s public reputation, very sadly, suffered unambiguously following the “wardrobe malfunction” of Super Bowl XXXVIII, which resulted in her videos and singles blacklisted at various outlets, and a steep drop-off in album sales. Following that, Janet morphed gradually into something of a side attraction: Her long-standing position at the vanguard of pop, as she was for so many years, was weakened. But the release of Unbreakable solidifies what seemed apparent after the warm reception for its first single (the loping after-hours disco of “No Sleeep,” which, though it’s just recently entered the Hot 100 in the 60s, is Janet’s longest-running No. 1 on the Adult R&B charts, and critically beloved) and her receipt of BET’s Ultimate Icon award in July: musically, Ms. Jackson is back and fully on top of her game. She’s now a legacy act, but not in the pejorative sense: She’s making her impact felt again.

Unbreakable, which is projected to sell between 90 and 105k this week, is a definitive late-career triumph for Jackson, boasting strong songwriting and savvy production which is more than capable of winning her new fans.