It could be the ample bank she and her husband, Wissam Al Mana, are sitting on, but Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable is so luxuriously chill it’s almost narcoleptic. And at a stage in her career when critics are sharpening up ageist phrases like “this stage in her career,” Janet’s relaxed confidence comes as a relief. The string of albums she released following the 2004 Incident That Will Not Define Her Career So Let’s Please Never Speak of It Again all groaned under the pressure of living up to whatever it is Janet felt she had to prove: relevance, momentum, royalty status, libido.
Damita Jo found the reigning champion of effortless pop struggling not to sweat, 20 Y.O. came on at best like a misguided R&B Sunset Boulevard, and Discipline sacrificed the bigger picture in exchange for a few transitory bolts of lightning (“Rock with U,” the still massive “Feedback”). With flop sex jams scattered in her wake, Janet was starting to feel like an Empress Nero, flicking the bean while the dance floor did anything but burn.
And then she disappeared, reportedly dismayed by those albums’ failure to generate even one single Top 10 hit. In the interim, she lost her brother and gained a husband. Unbreakable emerges marked by both events, and also marks the prodigal daughter’s return to her famed collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but it’s not the sort of album that battles with any one particular theme or emotion. If many of her previous albums could be said to represent various stopovers on a journey through grief (with Rhythm Nation standing in for anger, Damita Jo bargaining, and 20 Y.O. denial), Unbreakable finally reaches acceptance.
In one of the album’s brightest highlights, Janet pays tribute to Michael by channeling the buoyant energy of his Off the Wall-era disco. No, not just the energy: In “Broken Hearts Heal,” she sounds almost exactly like him, channeling his reedy vibrato, his trademark hiccups and gulps. Similarly, she taps into his paranoiac fixation on what everyone was saying in “The Great Forever,” chiding, “Don’t like seeing people happy/Is it jealousy or personal?/’Cause I don’t see why loving someone/Or what I do seem so radical to you.” She may be carrying the baton for her brother against “critics,” but much more abstractly. It’s a séance, not a possession.
That casual disengagement characterizes much of Unbreakable, which will no doubt be taken for a flaw by those who most value the urgency of her earlier albums, but will reward listeners who approach it with a parallel sense of passivity, even if the latter likely fall into the same demographic who’d have to Google DJ Mustard. With the exception of the straight fire Missy Elliott collaboration “BURNITUP!,” whose breathless all-caps title begs to be liberated from the rest of the album, even the dance tracks on Unbreakable float more than they stomp. The shimmering “Night” coasts on opulent electro-disco burbles, with Janet very believably exclaiming, “I woke up in heaven in the morning,” before the mist dissolves, exposing a skeleton of sturdy Minneapolis funk (Prince’s “Sexy Dancer,” to be specific).
Lyrically speaking, “Shoulda Known Better” fulfills early rumors that this album would be her unofficial follow-up to Rhythm Nation, opening with miniature portraits of people in strife (shades of “State of the World”) before staring down the possibility that all the good intentions in the world won’t make a difference. And in contrast to the razor-sharp beats of the track she explicitly name-drops, “Shoulda Known Better” uses soft, soaring trance to burnish the sad admission, “I had this great epiphany/And rhythm nation was the dream/I guess next time I’ll know better.”
The moment that bittersweet epilogue segues into the plaintive, stripped-down ballad “After You Fall” is as redolent of the ways anguish and disappointment are gradually welcomed into our very DNA as we mature into adulthood as Pixar’s Inside Out. As Janet’s voice has slipped a few registers down the staff, she seems to enjoy exploring the alto notes in her range. They shade tracks as diverse as “After You Fall,” a mutual Sunday-afternoon cry shared between besties, and “No Sleeep,” the album’s lead single and sole sex jam, which seemed initially underwhelming, but in true sleeper fashion has kept insinuated itself through its droning bassline, murmured lyrics, and dark and stormy atmospherics. It might be her greatest slow burner ever, and yet it still feels of a piece with its surroundings.
The album’s password, repeated multiple times across various songs, is “plush,” a word that signifies comfort, which the longer “No Sleeep” goes on and the less it holds together comes to indicate not material comfort, but the security that comes from knowing and owning your emotions. Janet has calculatedly played the humble-grateful card countless times in her career, but Unbreakable, a ready-made collection of deep cuts, is one of the first times she’s given a fully convincing performance.