Unbreakable feels like Jackson’s most timeless album.
“It’s been a while,” Janet Jackson whispers at the beginning of her 11th album, Unbreakable. Indeed, it’s been seven years since Discipline, the last in a series of albums overshadowed by the 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” that tainted her career. Not since 2001’s All For You has popular culture beheld Jackson as a serious pop artist free of silly context. And in a time when pop is taken more seriously than ever–thanks in part to Beyonce’s self-titled, which took a few cues from Jackson’s The Velvet Rope–what better time for her to return?
Unbreakable is neither a sonic game-changer like Control nor an exorcism like The Velvet Rope. But it is a gift for the fans: 64 minutes of compulsively listenable new music with no conceptual baggage. The album feels like a sigh of relief, an expression of overwhelming gratitude not only to her longtime fans, but anyone who’s still listening.
This might seem like the recipe for something trite. But considering just how much shit she’s had to deal with, from an abusive childhood to self-hatred to post-Super Bowl blacklisting, it’s well-earned. Having a legion of people who love you, even if it’s just for your art, must be reassuring. Jackson is at ease on this album, and most of the lyrics pertain to her contentment with new husband Wissam Al Mana. Even the song about her brother Michael’s death is called “Broken Hearts Heal” and features the promise “Insha’Allah see you in the next life.” (“Insha’Allah” means “God willing”; Jackson reportedly converted to Islam after her marriage.)
The most incredible thing about Unbreakable is how little Jackson sounds like she has to prove. She moves effortlessly, her voice a monolithic presence at the center of the soundscape. The line, “I’ma be the queen of insomnia,” on “No Sleeep,” might be cringe worthy if that epithet didn’t exactly describe her cool and confidence. There are only a few efforts at capturing a modern audience enthralled by Jackson’s pop progeny. The incongruous Missy Elliott collab “BURNITUP!” and the West Coast hip hop experiments “Dammn Baby” and “2 B Loved” are the worst things here, though they’re conspicuously placed and don’t disrupt the album’s flow too much.
Unbreakable is one of Jackson’s most focused and least indulgent albums. Her trademark spoken interludes, which dominated the track lists of her CD-era albums, are absent. When she speaks, she’s mostly commenting from “behind the scenes,” rapturously thanking her fans or ribbing her sound engineer. On Rhythm Nation 1814 and The Velvet Rope, she gave up much of her mic time to samples and instrumental segments, often scrambling to stay on top of the beats. Here, the focus is squarely on her voice, a bit raspier than last time we met her but still gorgeous.
Longtime producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis show uncharacteristic restraint. The duo isn’t trying to reinvent pop but be creative within its constraints. With its loping drums and well-timed splash of organ, “No Sleeep” is one of the year’s strongest pop productions. Some of the best songs here are the most minimal: in “Lessons Learned,” Jackson leans back in an intricate hammock of acoustic guitars, and “After You Fall” magnificently eschews all instruments except piano. There are more major-seventh chords here than in most pop, imbuing these songs with baroque beauty you simply can’t get with conventional pop triads.
If Jackson’s trying to reach a millennial audience here, she’s done it not by conforming to contemporary sonic trends (mostly) but by eschewing anything that’s even remotely dated. Unbreakable feels like Jackson’s most timeless album, and it’s also one of her most easy to listen to. Though it’s mostly a gift to the fans, it’s so enjoyable it just may just end up being the best entry point to her long career.