Although Janet Jackson is a fiercely private person, she’s always strived to make her music vulnerable—meaning her songs are conduits for frank discussions about bedroom proclivities, emotional struggles, romantic intimacy, social issues, and sexual fluidity. But on Unbreakable, her first album on her own label, Rhythm Nation Records, Jackson sounds unguarded and open in ways she hasn’t in years. Working with songwriters and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for the first time since 2006’s 20 Y.O., she dials back the explicitly sexual lyrics she’s favored on her last few releases, in favor of reflections about relationships, life, love, and the greater good.
On the airy pop standout “Shoulda Known Better,” Jackson sounds crushed that her Rhythm Nation-era vision of tolerance and inclusion has fallen short, and calls for a rebirth of these principles. The simmering quiet storm jam “Black Eagle,” which is dedicated to the disenfranchised and ignored, similarly expresses that society has plenty of room for improvement. She’s more concerned with matters of the heart on “After You Fall,” an intimate piano ballad with wobbly vocals that offers unconditional love, while the vintage-sounding R&B title track doubles as an expression of gratitude for both loyal fans and a lover. Only the icy, J. Cole-featuring single “No Sleeep” is overtly sexual–and even this song is coquettish rather than raunchy.
The J. Cole cameo is also one of the few times when Unbreakable actively reaches for contemporary relevance. Otherwise, the album is a pleasant, seamless balance of retro flourishes with a subtly modern sheen. Highlight “Dammn Baby” merges ’80s synth-funk chill with a slow jam breakdown; “Night” is an insistent electro-swerve; and “2 B Loved” recalls early-’00s Top 40 soul-pop. Perhaps more poignant, Janet’s voice grows breathier and more delicate on several tracks, including the syrupy “The Great Forever,” the brisk folk-pop track “Lessons Learned,” and “Broken Hearts Heal,” which makes her sound eerily like her brother Michael. This is especially moving on the “Broken Hearts Heal”: Not only do its lyrics focus on resiliency in the face of emotional trauma, but the lush, snaps-and-strings-driven R&B instrumentation isn’t a far cry from MJ’s mellower moments. Unbreakable is Jackson’s first album since her brother’s death, making it no stretch to see these moments as a tribute.
For all of its strengths, however, Unbreakable could use a good editor. At 17 songs and nearly 65 minutes, the album is dragged down by filler. “Dream Maker/Euphoria” resembles subpar Prince, and the final two songs sound tacked on: “Well Traveled” is a lukewarm Bic-flicker with head-scratching gang vocal harmonies, while the horn-featuring, gospel-funk bacchanalia “Gon B Alright” is jarring after the album’s generally mellow and cohesive tone. And despite the presence of guest Missy Elliott and a general vibe of self-empowerment, the dance floor banger “Burnitup!” doesn’t quite overcome dated-sounding production and overly generic exhortations about DJs and dancing. Still, Unbreakable is overall Jackson’s strongest album in a decade, a mature and nuanced career progression that sounds effortless. Unsurprisingly, independence and taking full control of her own destiny and career suits Ms. Jackson quite well.