When Janet Jackson last released a new studio album — Discipline, in 2008 — she was trying to find her way back onto the pop charts that she dominated for so much of the '80s and '90s. She broke with her longtime production team, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, in favor of a batch of contemporary hitmakers. But the reboot backfired, with the album sinking off the charts and Jackson breaking up with her record company.
Since then, there's been more upheaval. Her brother Michael Jackson died in 2009, and the next year she broke off a relationship with producer Jermaine Dupri and scrapped a follow-up album on which they were collaborating.
Two years ago, she announced that she was working on a new album with Jam and Lewis, and had married her third husband, Qatari businessman Wissam Al Mana. With Unbreakable, the 11th album of a career that spans four decades, Jackson eases back into the conversation she so desperately sought to join seven years ago.
On much of her recent work, Jackson increasingly delivered songs laden with soft-core-porn come-ons and kinky innuendo. Unbreakable presents a warmer, more nurturing personality — a more mature, old-sister version of the voice she presented on her early breakthrough albums. This time, Jam and Lewis surround her with sleek, less emphatic beats.
The onetime electro-funk architects from Minneapolis can still capably rev up the tempo — the propulsive BurnItUp! with its ebullient Missy Elliott cameo, and the affectionate Motown and Sly Stone homage Gon' B Alright. But the emphasis is on ballads and chilled meditations, with Jackson's slight but nuanced vocals cushioned by little more than piano on After You Fall, finger snaps and twinkling keyboards on Black Eagle and undulating acoustic guitars on Lessons Learned. The songs prefer to glide rather than stomp, from the soul-inflected title track to the gleaming pop-rock of Take Me Away.
The singer projects a spiritual air as she looks to the afterlife in The Great Forever and revisits the social issues that first forcefully emerged on her 1989 Rhythm Nation album, which gets a shoutout on the cautionary Shoulda Known Better. Her tribute to brother Michael, Broken Hearts Heal, is in keeping with the album's breezy tone.
The low-key approach may not be enough to storm the charts. But the mood suits her.