For nearly seven years between 1995 and 2001, Michael Jackson went quiet. He released two compilation albums with a few new one-off tracks, but the waiting time for a follow-up album to the 1995 release of HIStory was unusually long — especially for a pop star that continually released material since age six. So when Invincible released in Oct. of 2001, Michael Jackson was expected to make a monumental Thriller-esque comeback. However, the album was unlike any album in Jackson’s discography — it’s vindictive, assertive and disheveled, reflecting the mental state of one of music’s most famous stars. Invincible, in hindsight, offers a rare glimpse behind the curtain of pop music’s ever-present label executives and publicists to reveal soundbites of Jackson’s deterioration.
Aside from the pressure of arguably the biggest fan base of all time, Jackson was returning to the charts with Invincible after widespread media coverage regarding alleged child molestation. His life had been more public than ever before — his house was invaded, his marriage failed and a police strip-search revealed detailed descriptions of his private parts on an international level. Regardless of the legitimacy of his charges (which were dismissed at the time), Jackson was the center of international media scrutiny.
In retrospect, considering Jackson’s turmoil, Invincible is exactly the album he wanted to release. It’s unapologetically angry, with heavy electronic production and vocal distortion that veers far from early 2000s pop influences. The opening track “Unbreakable” slaps listeners in the face with its wall of sound; there’s a growling lion, syncopated piano and heavy 808s repeated in a short loop that feels militaristic. Jackson lets this beat saturate listeners’ ears for almost a minute before coming in with more grit than ever before questioning, “Now I’m just wondering why you think / That you can get to me with anything?” Perhaps to combat his alleged molestation charges, Jackson is uber-macho, even featuring a Notorious B.I.G. feature on “Unbreakable” in what feels like an attempt at hypermasculinity.
However, this machismo divides the album. The first three tracks (“Unbreakable,” “Heartbreaker” and “Invincible”) follow a similar trend of dense production and bitter lyricism, but there’s also jarring pockets of familiar, yet boring, Jackson ballads. “Break of Dawn” opens with bird noises and “The Lost Children” features sampled audio of children playing — an odd dichotomy of the well-known and soft-spoken Jackson versus one that is bitter and aggressive.
Somewhere in the middle, there’s a glimpse of Jackson as a true R&B artist that’s neither angry or bashful. “You Rock My World” is what I’d expect a well-seasoned, adult pop star to sound like late in his career — it’s light-hearted and mature while remaining innovative. Produced by Darkchild (Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” and Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”) and featuring ad-libs from comedian Chris Tucker, “You Rock My World” perfectly embodied the growing sound of early 2000s R&B. Darkchild’s signature bass and string production would later dominate the 2000s with Destiny’s Child, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Jackson feels sincere — he doesn’t sound vocally strained, as he stays in a more achievable range, singing about courting a lover. “You Rock My World” was Jackson’s last number one to top the charts during his lifetime and, looking back, that makes sense. It was exactly what fans wanted — something fresh and innovative that didn’t stray too far from the Jackson they knew and loved, sounding like an updated “The Way You Make Me Feel” but for the 2000s.
The more interesting (and likely more genuine) parts of Invincible are those that are brash, showcasing a side of Jackson the public never saw. Invincible’s disjointed, sometimes contrasting flow is why the album is required listening — never before had a mega star released an album that lacked pristine calculation and allowed genuine insight into an artist’s psyche. Invincible, although largely forgotten by fans, is Jackson at his most earnest and, coincidentally, his last body of work. In the years after Invincible, Jackson would face another child molestation charge and spiral deeper into controversy (like dangling his child over a balcony) that prevented any further studio albums, suggesting that Invincible offered fans a warning of his future decline.