I’ve been in a Michael Jackson mood recently. It’s kind of a sudden thing; while I’ve had Off the Wall and Thriller for a while now and thoroughly enjoy both of them, I’ve never been compelled to venture into MJ’s post-Bad releases, not to mention that his status as my 80’s pop icon of choice has been usurped soundly by Prince (I mean, come on, you can’t blame me). But upon a chance listening of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Black or White” off my sister’s iPod (which I steal from her from time to time during car rides, mostly to hear the sweet sounds of my youth that are direly missing from my own music collection), I thought to myself, “Hey, these songs are still really good! And neither are from Off the Wall or even Thriller! What have I been missing out on??”
That’s what led me to Dangerous. As a kid, it was the first Michael Jackson album that had hits I was old enough to remember, most notably the aforementioned “Black or White” and the classic “Will You Be There” which pretty much any kid my age would recognize as the theme to “Free Willy” (a song that, honestly, I had no idea was on this album until right before hearing it – what a pleasant surprise!). It was also MJ’s first album of the 90’s (coming out in late ’91), and it seems that Mike wanted to make a more modern-sounding album by replacing Quincy Jones – the producer who had helped hone the sound of Jackson’s 80’s megahits – with Terry Riley, who’d practically single-handedly invented the New Jack Swing genre by this point. As such, Dangerous sounds like an endearing – if not somewhat dated – encapsulation of pre-grunge 90’s pop, full of layered beats, beatboxing, guest rappers, and synth horns, not to mention Jackson’s fervent vocal delivery that was (and still is) one of pop music’s most iconic voices. Yeah, it might sound a little silly nowadays – especially to a generation of kids who weren’t even alive when Nevermind came out – but as someone who grew up with the music, I can’t help but be charmed by it.
But despite Dangerous being something of a 90’s artifact, Jackson’s songs remain compelling – while the complex New Jack beats give MJ more room to breathe creatively, they’re more of a superficial innovation than anything. What really drives most of the songs on Dangerous is Jackson’s ever-increasing paranoia, littering the album with some of the darkest songs he’d ever released. While songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” and “Billie Jean” off Thriller and “Leave Me Alone” from the Bad sessions proved that MJ was adept at transforming his own lingering fears into excessively popular dance hits, Dangerous really goes off the deep end, with songs like “Jam,” “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” and “Who Is It” featuring pained, frustrated vocals and lyrics rallying against not just the public’s opinion of Jackson, but his family, friends, and even himself. “Jam,” for instance, contains lyrics like “I told my brothers / don’t you ask me for no favors / I’m conditioned by the system / don’t you talk to me / don’t scream and shout” (the mention of “brothers” could refer to the other Jackson brothers, but who the hell knows) and “I have to find my peace / ’cause no one seems to let me be / false prophets cry of doom,” all sung in a fast, anxious vocal delivery that sounds about as tough as Jackson can muster. “Jam”‘s paranoia seeps into other key tracks: “Why You Wanna Trip On Me,” in which Jackson questions why the press would target his personal life instead of global problems like world hunger and disease, and especially “Who Is It,” maybe the most paranoid song on the album. In the latter Jackson rants about a woman who left him for someone else, wondering “Who is it? / Is it a friend of mine? / Who is it? / is it my brother?” And he sings it so desperately, it sounds personal.
So yeah, I dig the darker songs on Dangerous. Hell, I’d even wager that MJ does sound genuinely “dangerous” on this record, but maybe not in the way he intended; where the title seems to imply (like Bad) that Jackson is some kind of hip-hoppin’ street tough, to me it seems that he’s more of a danger to himself and to the people he cares about, frightened and angry and hard to control. When that personality comes through in his music, it often comes across in a compelling – and thoroughly disturbing – way, as in the bizarre sex anthem “Give In To Me” or the desperate “Can’t Let Her Get Away.” But it’s because those bizzaro-dance anthems are so interesting that the nicer, slower ballads on the album come across as staid and almost nonsensical. “Heal The World,” for example, is basically “The Girl is Mine” with that track’s cutesy charm replaced with a cliched social message that is way too damned vague; in between “Can’t Let Her Get Away” and the great “Black Or White,” it sounds downright anomalous. “Gone Too Soon” is soft rock at its absolute softest, and despite being a pleasant enough ballad it’s just way too much. And as much as I enjoy “Will You Be There,” it’s a bit over-the-top even for Jackson, with an extended intro and a slightly embarrassing spoken-word prayer thing from MJ at the end. After the first six tracks or so, Dangerous becomes surprisingly inconsistent.
But hell, screw consistency. Yeah, the first six tracks mesh pretty well, but I don’t care for “In The Closet” and some of the other Riley-heavy tracks can sound too samey. My favorites here are the two peppiest songs on the album: “Black or White” is a fantastic pop hit that completely deserved its #1 spot, with a wonderfully fun melody and a social message that isn’t too heavy handed (with the exception of that super-lame rap in the middle of the bridge). Then there’s “Keep The Faith,” a soulful little gem that for some reason was never released as a single (and there were NINE fuckin’ singles from this album – come on, isn’t this song better than “In The Closet”??). These two songs, plus most of the first half of the album, make Dangerous worthwhile for me.
Y’know, there’s no point in me denying Michael Jackson. Yes, he doesn’t have the consistency nor the artistic cred that Prince has, but man, when he was big, he was bigger than anybody. I feel a comparison to Elvis is apt (I’m not saying MJ is better or equal to Elvis, it’s just for comparison): like Elvis, Michael Jackson wasn’t necessarily an absolutely stellar recording artist and was ultimately brought down by his bizarre personal life, but he honestly had the ability to touch the world at his peak (make all the jokes about that statement as you like), something Prince could never ever do. And most of the time, he had the music to back it up. I don’t think I’m going to listen to Dangerous as much as Thriller or Off The Wall – barring its inconsistencies, it’s a behemoth in terms of length, with overlong songs that push the album’s running time at over 70 minutes – but it’s a pretty solid pop album either way. I’ll put it on when it need a good jam to clear out my head. Or for a 90’s nostalgia party.
P.S.: For an even more perfect encapsulation of early 90’s pop culture, check out the video for “Black or White.” Macaulay Culkin, George Wendt, and tigers, oh my.