NEW YORK (AFP) - It can't be easy to be the kid sister of the King of Pop, but Janet Jackson pulled it off in the 1980s as she became a music legend in her own right.
On her first studio album since Michael Jackson died in 2009, Janet channels him more than ever before, with her voice at times eerily reminiscent of her brother's.
"Unbreakable" - her 11th studio album, which came out worldwide on Friday (Oct 2) - opens with a funky R&B title track that could easily be mistaken for posthumous Michael Jackson, with Janet singing in the short gasping-for-breath "hiccups" so identified with her brother and in a range that brings to mind his falsetto.
The opening track gradually quiets down to give the atmosphere of a cafe - a conversational theme Janet pursued on social media to promote the album - as she says: "Hello, it's been awhile. Lots to talk about. I'm glad you're still here."
Indeed, Janet Jackson has plenty to talk about since her last album in 2008. Her brother's sudden death led her to withdraw from the spotlight to grieve but she re-emerged in 2011 with an 80-date tour to promote a greatest hits collection.
In 2012, she quietly married Qatari tycoon Wissam Al Mana and again shunned the limelight until earlier this year when she announced "Unbreakable," for which she has started a 92-date arena tour of North America and Japan.
On "Broken Hearts Heal," a mellow, steady-beat R&B track on the album that steers clear of maudlin excess, Jackson eulogizes her brother as she remembers a childhood spent "around the brightest stars the world had seen" as they "danced and sang our way through most anything / always felt safe in each other's love." "Our love ain't no material anything / Inshallah, see you in the next life," she sings, using the Arabic phrase for "God willing." "After You Fall" harks back to Michael Jackson's most memorable ballads as the expressiveness of Janet's voice carries a tune over minimalist piano.
Janet remained close to her late brother, despite the notorious dysfunction elsewhere in his life and their troubled relationship with their domineering father.
But "Unbreakable" is more than a tribute to her late brother, as the 49-year-old Jackson goes retro with the sound that first defined her rather than dabbling in the latest trends.
"Burnitup!" is driven by a thumping bass, with rapper Missy Elliot pitching in to declare that, still, "Miss Jackson, she wear the crown." Jackson again worked with the songwriting team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who produced her blockbuster 1986 album "Control" which was a landmark in merging R&B and pop with the then emerging genre of hip-hop.
Jackson managed both to showcase sex appeal and pursue a socially conscious message, an inspiration for many younger stars, most notably Beyonce.
Yet the Janet Jackson of 2015 is more jaded than the singer who, in her famous 1989 song, rallied the masses of fans to be "part of the Rhythm Nation" and "join voices in protest of social injustice."
On "Shoulda Known Better," Jackson sounds exasperated at the prevalence of poverty and the inaction of critics who "only want to talk." "I don't want my face to be that poster child for being naive," she sings.
"I had this great epiphany / And Rhythm Nation was the dream / I guess next time I'll know better." Yet Jackson also has light moments on "Unbreakable," which runs over an hour.
She closes with a fun-charging, 1970s-style funk tune, "Gon B Alright," and finally a snippet of her chatting in the studio.
Offering an ironic end to an often stern album, Jackson voices mock alarm at being caught unaware on the studio mic.
"Should have known better after all these years," she concludes.