Janet Jackson’s ‘Unbreakable’: Album Review

A seven-year hiatus could make any artist breakable, especially in 2015, where the musical attention span is the length of an iTunes snippet. Janet Jackson makes a valiant attempt to defy those odds with her eleventh studio album, aptly titled Unbreakable (out today, ). Ms. Jackson (if you’re nasty) is in an interesting predicament this time around. Her 2008 offering Discipline didn’t supply the oomph of previous Janet projects, though the lead single “Feedback” teased the notion that Janet still had it in her? Especially when working with electro-pop power pioneers like Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, who come with built-in notions of what artists should sound like on their production. Janet has always been malleable, but the project felt disjointed. That same feeling arrives at times with Unbreakable, only it manifests itself in new ways.

A lot has happened over the past seven years. Janet ended her relationship with Jermaine Dupri (marrying that “regular guy” billionaire Wissam Al Mana in 2012). She also lost her brother Michael in 2009. These are personal milestones and pitfalls that have zero to do with creating, but could understandably halt it, especially if you’re not plugged in during that absence. And now Janet is back, dropped conveniently into a pool of her children: the Tinashes, even the August Alsinas — because Janet’s reach transcended gender (especially when she explored her more seductive side) — who do what she does for an updated audience. Janet doesn’t seem to want to compete with them like she maybe did the last time around. This time she’s a satisfied Janet, full of cautionary tales and grown-woman advice.

So here we are with a release that could be anti-climactic to some, but a relief to diehard fans simply because it exists. This was all evidenced by Unbreakable‘s first single “No Sleeep,” a woozy, finger-snappy cut that sounded like Sunday morning (post-hangover, pre-pancakes and the New York Times). Some dove headfirst into the track’s bedsheets, especially once J. Cole hopped on the remix. Others felt like she was pulling a Throwback Thursday on herself — was this quintessential Janet or dated R&B? The title track carried a new tune, as the cut transforms from a smooth ballad to a rhythmic ride down the middle. Missy Elliott’s on-brand silliness on “BURNITUP!” was endearing to some but torture to others, as Janet splits the difference by sounding alarmingly like Michael. She does this again on the album cut “The Great Forever” and the beautiful dedication to her brother, “Broken Hearts Heal.”

The rest of the project is pretty positive, as a newly subdued Janet — one who is approaching 50 and happily married — isn’t necessarily succumbing to adulthood, but rather content with it. The days of leather and chains are behind her, at least on record. She approaches Unbreakable with modesty, no lashing out and no mention of sex (maybe a tease of it on the incredibly funky “Dammn Baby”?). It’s all making love around these parts. In fact, the sex isn’t even overt enough to qualify. Once again, that could be argued as anti-climactic, especially for those who still relive “If” as if it were yesterday. There are other lulls (“After You Fall,” “Dream Maker/Euphoria,” “Promise”) and then some high (even slightly trappish) points like “2 B Loved.”

The magnificent aspect of Unbreakable, though, is that the project finds Jackson back in the hands of producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Only this pairing could adequately handle the new era of Janet effectively. The aforementioned cut “Dammn Baby” is one example, where the rhythms soar high and then drop down to sexy lows (ignore the “dayummmmmm baby” ad libs). “Night” is another, borrowing a page from the classics, along with “Lessons Learned” and “Black Eagle” — both examples of the best version of turned-down Janet.

Sure, Unbreakable is a little long — understandable, given Janet Jackson had a lot of catching up to do. The biggest issue is whether or not she should’ve elbowed her way back into the high school party (a la Madonna) instead of surrendering to Adult Contemporary life. The two final tracks — “Well Traveled” and “Gon’ B Alright” are indicative of that transition, where the former is a yawning anthem and the latter sounds like wedding music. It’s a conundrum that any artist who has grown up in the studio encounters, but Janet’s talent in that sphere undoubtedly still keeps her current.

One thing is for certain: Unbreakable is a project full of pretty decent jams that won’t break a legend, so the album has already lived up to its name.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

— Kathy Iandoli