Growth has been a constant theme in the best of Janet Jackson’s work. Her spectacular breakthrough album Control (1986) was largely about growing into an adult. Rhythm Nation found Janet developing her social awareness, janet found the singer blossoming into a sexual being, and 1997’s audacious Velvet Rope was about various types of self-discovery (spiritual as well as sensual).

Janet Jackson's 2015 album "Unbreakable"The albums Janet released since Rope found her losing the plot somewhat. All For You, Damita Jo and Discipline all had songs worthy of recommendation, but they lacked the level of cohesion that their predecessors possessed (and the less we say about 2006’s God-awful 20 Y.O., the better.) Janet sounded more and more like a desperate trend chaser than a confident trend setter with each passing album. She seemed bereft of new ideas; almost bored. Spinning her wheels.

It’s been seven years since Janet released new music, and there was hope amongst her fanbase that a lengthy period of time off would recharge the creative batteries (if she hadn’t said “screw it all” and actually retired). I wrote this in August 2014:

I just think that Janet has genius left in her, and it got cast aside over the course of her last couple of albums due to her working with unsympathetic collaborators (*cough*JermaineDupri*cough*), trying to compete with the Beyonces and Rihannas of the world (much of Discipline) or going overboard on the whole “sex kitten” angle. Janet’s now 48 years old. We know she’s seen and experienced a lot. When she turns those sights and experiences into music, the result is often genius. Her fans have grown up with her, and not only would they like Janet to share her life musically once again, but they also want to hear stuff they can relate to. I, for one, think it can happen. If she takes her mind off the charts, maybe releases her music independently without the demands of a major label tampering with her work to make it more commercial, and works with musically sound and sympathetic collaborators, I’m sure she has good music left in her.

I won’t be presumptuous enough to speculate that Janet, Jimmy or Terry read that article, but I will say that Miss Jackson’s 11th studio album, Unbreakable, follows the template I suggested to a tee, and it’s resulted in the strongest album she’s released in the 21st century, and a welcome return to form.

The key-again-is growth. Much of the lyrical content of Unbreakable focuses on love, contentment and family. It doesn’t sound preachy or self-righteous, either-Janet’s relatable persona comes through loud and clear on these songs. She projects awareness that life and personal evolution are constant works in progress. That awareness doesn’t come from a Pollyanna-ish place, either. “Shoulda Known Better” manages to express disillusionment while also offering a sliver of hope that the ideals Janet expressed in the Rhythm Nation era are still viable. Then there’s “The Great Forever”, which I originally dismissed as standard-issue Jackson Family critic-bashing, but at least indicates that a degree of personal and spiritual contentment doesn’t rob one of their teeth.

Unbreakable‘s emotional high point is “Broken Hearts Heal”. Clearly written about her brother Michael, it has a wistful, heartfelt sincerity. When a cacophony of percussion kicks in part way through the song (clearly meant to be reminiscent of MJ’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”), it’s all I can do to hold back the tears. That song out “Together Again”s “Together Again” by leagues.

Sonically, Jam & Lewis haven’t lost a step. The soundscapes they create don’t go overboard trying to be radio-friendly, but they’ve clearly been listening to modern music. Not that they really needed to: much of pop, dance and R&B music circa 2015 is heavily influenced by sounds they created. The sonic breadth of Unbreakable is typical of a Janet album, though, and the three navigate through intimate piano ballads (“After You Fall”), sultry slow jams (“No Sleeep”), throwback soul (“Dream Maker/Euphoria”) and vibey electronica (“Night”, nodding heavily to Prince’s “Sexy Dancer” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover”) without missing a beat. Then, of course, there are those impeccable Jackson harmonies, as recognizable to listeners as the trademark Jackson smile.

While the songs are new, listening to Unbreakable creates such a familiar vibe; it’s like being a (silent) participant at a reunion of some of your favorite relatives or long-lost friends. The music, the songs, the singing all conjures up a level of warmth and intimacy that can only be created when the creators are coming from a place of sincerity. Janet sounds at peace with her place in the music scene (as evidenced by the relative lack of modern top 40 tropes like guest rappers and Auto-Tune) but still creatively and spiritually restless; a combination that’s usually an arbiter of good music to come.

When rumors of Janet going back to work with Jimmy & Terry began to surface, I held my breath with equal amounts of anticipation and fear. I’m very happy to say that Unbreakable exceeded my expectations and serves as a high-water mark when it comes to recent music by the icons of my youth. Job well done, guys. I hope the “conversation” that Janet keeps alluding to has more to offer in years to come.

Grade: A-

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