Many pop stars use fame as a pulpit, but Janet Jackson’s 1989 album Rhythm Nation 1814 remains an agit-pop standout. Its stark industrial atmospherics and black-and-white imagery would probably cause nervous glances in major label boardrooms today.
Now an independent artist, Jackson returns to social realism on her 11th studio album, noting on Shoulda Known Better that “the dream” that was Rhythm Nation never came true. Unbreakable is largely about the empathy and perspective that come with age, and her long-time collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, mirror her introspective lyrics with tons of Janety production quirks that make the album feel like a career summation of sorts: warm harmonies, spoken-word bits, genderless vocal effects and noises like sighs, breaths and a (well-timed) sneeze that jolt your attention while drawing you in deeper.
These hallmarks are mixed in with on-trend beats, finger-snapping R&B and even stylistic references to her late brother Michael and the Jackson 5. But it’s the ballads – a side of her repertoire that had taken a back seat to forgettable chart-chasers – that show Jackson’s at her vocal and songwriting best.
Top track: Broken Hearts Heal