Since Janet Jackson last released an album, President Barack Obama secured the presidential nomination and has nearly served two terms in the White House; a pope resigned and a new, more progressive one succeeded him; gay marriage was legalized in the entirety of the United States and a Black woman took home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series for the very first time. That time also saw an uptick in mass shootings and civil unrest breaking out in the country after staggering uses of police brutality sparked protests. And, sadly, it included the untimely death of her brother, Michael Jackson, as well. A lot, good and bad, can happen in seven years. With all that going on, speculation about what Janet’s return would bring musically and lyrically flew around. Now that her eleventh studio album, Unbreakable, has been released to the masses, we now know. Reuniting with her dream team, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Janet expands her discography with what is perhaps the best album she’s put out since 1997’s The Velvet Rope.
With the opening title track “Unbreakable,” we’re clued in to what this journey will be about: an exploration of love in all its facets, but especially that concerning her fans and her family. Over a sweet soul sample, Janet croons, “What I share with you / Ever sacred, everlasting / The greatest love for me.” The warmth of her vocal coupled with the throwback production sets us up for a project that looks forward to the future while hinting at the past that brought her here. It’s perhaps most obvious on the next two tracks that follow, the Missy Elliott-featuring “BURNITUP!” and potential single “Dammn Baby.” “BURNITUP!” is the quintessential Janet dance track with a hard-hitting club beat balanced with a bit of R&B sensibility, amplified by the hyped-up energy of Missy adding her signature charm. “Dammn Baby,” on the other hand, almost sounds nothing like a Janet track — it’s sparse, electronic beat at times sounding like a more melodic DJ Mustard production. But then Jam and Lewis (alongside Dem Jointz, who has considerable input throughout Unbreakable) weaves in an interpolation of “I Get Lonely” for the fans. There are quite a few other nods to Janet’s past work throughout —”Shoulda Known Better” dabbles in world-weary EDM while referencing the dream deferred that was the message of Rhythm Nation, while she revisits her steamier sound with the laid-back cousin to “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” that is lead single “No Sleeep.”
Another presence felt on Unbreakable is that of Janet’s older brother Michael. Rather than run from the pain of his passing, Janet embraces it with the surprisingly upbeat “Broken Hearts Heal.” The tender soulful house tune finds her reminiscing on childhood memories, with Janet emphasizing that their love for one another “ain’t no material thing” as “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is slyly interpolated in the song’s back end. Then there’s “The Great Forever,” which is pretty much Janet’s own take on MJ’s 1987 Bad classic “Leave Me Alone,” as they both contain a similar shuffling beat and attack the gossiping media. It’s also a moment where Janet uncannily evokes the phrasing and vocal of her late brother (the other time is the Sly Stone/Jackson 5 funk hybrid of a closer “Gon’ B Alright, which will have you checking the album’s credits to see if Michael’s vocals were sampled for backgrounds).
Elsewhere, Janet is content in just enjoying her return to music. The collection includes many sides of the singer that we’ve heard before and are glad to hear again. There are tender, introspective ballads (“After You Fall,” “Lessons Learned”), pulsing house numbers (“Night”), house-shaking R&B jams (“2 B Loved”) and wistfully romantic pop songs (“Take Me Away”). But there are a few curveballs, too. The country twang-meets-world music vibe of “Well Traveled” is unexpected, but surprisingly works quite well. Then there’s “Black Eagle,” a slow, sparse electronic number, which sounds like it could’ve been at home on The Velvet Rope but touches on the civil unrest currently ongoing across the world. Also of note, those who venture out to grab the Target special edition of the album are treated to two special songs: “Promise Of You,” an intriguing expansion of the album’s sole interlude “Promise,” which delves deeper into the wounded grace found there, and “Love U 4 Life,” a sexy, slinky (albeit short) jam about love making that shows that a happily married Janet still has the ability to make a bedroom her playground.
Unbreakable finds a wiser, more mature Janet observing the landscape of music, love and the world around her and finding her place in all of it. With her being off the scene for so long, it would be expected that Janet would turn to the hottest producers of the moment to give her a sound that would compete with the very generation of entertainers she helped birth. That isn’t the case here, however. And if you’re looking for her to rehash her heyday, you can buy one of her greatest hits collections. Instead, Janet shirks expectations to create the kind of record she wanted, one that acknowledges her past, pays attention to the present and sets a course for the future. In doing so, she rightfully reassumes the throne of her Rhythm Nation.