Despite the shadow cast by her brother Michael, Janet Jackson has always been her own artist. And over 10 albums, most notably 1989’s Rhythm Nation 1814, the singer (along with production from fabled duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) has fused a unique version of R&B, dance, and pop that’s succeeded independently of Michael’s career.
But since the King of Pop’s premature passing in 2009, the press-shy Janet has largely avoided speaking out about him. So it’s a surprise that on her first album since his death—produced once again by Jam and Lewis—the 49-year-old delivers her most MJ-sounding release. There aren’t just a few nods, either—Michael has worked his way into all corners of his sister’s sound. She matches the timbre of his croon on multiple tracks (especially “Unbreakable”) and drops many of his signature breathing tics into “Broken Hearts Heal.” Janet, who has always flaunted her sexuality, is also more lyrically guarded here, eschewing confessions about relationships in favor of Michael-inspired pleas for peace and togetherness.
Janet makes up for that lack of intimacy with her most sonically diverse set since 1997’s quirky, hypersexual The Velvet Rope. She rounds all the R&B bases, and there’s a healthy dose of club adrenaline, particularly on the Missy Elliott-assisted “BURNITUP!” and the heady house jam “Night.” But perhaps the most thrilling aspect of Unbreakable is her willingness to experiment. “Gon’ B Alright” is a Sly Stone-style funk bomb, and “Well Traveled” swoops with stately arena-rock flourishes. Unlike contemporaries like Mariah Carey, Janet strikes a solid balance between innovation and dependability, bridging past and future better than most—including her legendary sibling. B+