Who cares about the monkeys, little boys and experiments in cryogenics? Why do the failed marriages, legal problems and facial reconstructions matter? Do the bizarre clothes, claims and litigations really warrant such scrutiny? Can we not just enjoy the man’s music?
For too long, Michael Jackson’s career and accomplishments have been obfuscated by detractors who dwell on his unfortunately myriad undermining missteps. However, those so quick to ignore Michael’s success and talent should take some time this weekend to listen to his grossly underrated Dangerous. (And if you are only a fan of his dancing, at least go online and download his “Remember the Time,” “Jam,” “Black or White” and “(Keep It) In the Closet” videos. Magic, Eddie, Iman, Michael, Naomi, Macaulay, Norm – what casts!)
His fourth solo album, Dangerous, seems to occupy an interesting niche in Jackson’s, and therefore pop culture’s, history. Released four years after Bad and four years before the ill-fated HIStory project, the album was Jackson’s last quality studio endeavor, and it gets lost in Michael’s transition over those eight years from pop deity (forget royalty) to controversy lightening rod.
In fact, given the failures of HIStory and Blood on the Dance Floor and the underperformance of last year’s disappointing Invincible, Dangerous instead should hold a special place as the last album when Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson.
Starting with the sound established by the record’s opening song, “Jam” – a fast-paced, hip-hop-laced number – listeners embark upon an energized 14-track journey into the world of pop and R&B fusion, taking a few breaks along the way for Michael to show some compassion.
Dangerous really is a quintessential Jackson album: Hard bass lines with keyboard and string melodies, vocals ranging from smooth to jagged with the seemingly requisite grunts and hisses, a bevy of tones and varied messages concerning eclectic topics like interracial dating and preservation of the earth.
Those who refuse to place the album in the pantheon with its three predecessors – Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad – surely forget the strong bass of “Baby Be Mine,” the incessant grunting on “Bad” and the sonic diversity found when comparing “Get on the Floor” with ” I Can’t Help It.”
If it were not enough for some critics, let alone “fans,” that Dangerous has all the Jackson staples, they should also note that the album has great merit independent of comparison to Michael’s other works. Those listening to the record need never skip a track, because all of them are good – many better than that. In an era when tons of records released have a few listenable songs and a great deal of filler, Dangerous’ consistency is an important credential.
Certainly, it is not the greatest album of all time (some of Michael’s ramblings at the end of “Heal the World” and a few mawkish songs like “Keep the Faith” ensure this lack of achievement) but it is nonetheless very good.
Dangerous’ most notable track is likely “Black or White,” given its message of racial tolerance and the fact that it ushered in Michael’s return from hiatus when the song first debuted. It garnered additional attention for its video, one that starred Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt, and featured the unforgettable final montage of diverse faces morphing into each other.
However, “Black or White” is fairly bland, both musically and emotionally, when compared to the other material on the album. This point is not offered to diminish “Black or White” but instead to illustrate both the album’s strength and the unfortunate fact that its other songs are overlooked.
Among this group of neglected works is “Give in to Me,” a chilling track on which Michael details a fractured relationship.
The combination of Jackson’s emotional singing and the visceral guitar playing provided by then-member of Guns ‘N Roses Slash (Bucket who?) enraptures listeners and illustrates how compelling a presence Jackson can be.
“Give in to Me” is an almost harrowing song because of the feeling that Michael is able to convey through his singing and lyrics.
However, the engaging nature of the King of Pop’s pathos can be found throughout Dangerous. On “Remember the Time,” Michael’s erroneous grunts and slurps actually embellish the track, conveying a deep conviction that might not otherwise come across from the song’s lyrics, despite their nostalgic motif.
Also meant to be as explicitly evocative as the other two is “Who Is It,” a ballad about forlorn love set to an up-tempo beat yet anchored in the melancholy by its synthesized chords and echoing woodwinds.
The dreariness and sadness of “Who Is It” and “Give in to Me” are matched by Jackson’s energy and concern on other tracks like “Why You Wanna Trip on Me.” Over an almost sinister bass line, the song addresses some of the problems that chronically afflict society, and Jackson attacks them and their perpetuators with his signature zeal and harnessed anger.
This latter attribute has always been a characteristic of Michael’s solo works, lending his voice a gruff nature and his music a hard edge when wanted.
The technique clearly surfaces on Dangerous (and, for that matter, on all his other works), yet he often uses it to enhance or diversify those projects. Contrastingly, on his 1995 duet with his sister Janet, “Scream,” Michael allows that tone (and the emotions which fuel it) to dominate.
Wholly opposite in feeling from the others are the jejune songs “Heal the World,” and “Will You Be There.” While both are well-intentioned works meant to promote compassion and awareness, Jackson allows his tendency toward occasional sappy songs to get the best of him.
While neither track is ostensibly horrible – they don’t hurt ears or redefine “music” in a bad way – neither is a reason to be excited about Dangerous. Yet these few digressions from what is otherwise a concentrated emotional masterpiece do not ruin the album.
In fact, very little could diminish Dangerous, a record that should be rightfully seen in historical perspective as Michael’s last great opus.
VH1 used to have Michael Jackson concert marathons during which people could watch endless hours of Eastern Bloc teens swooning and fainting when they heard the first note from “Beat It” or had a chance to see (SEE!) Jackson on stage or walking to his bus.
While those days may have passed here (who knows what’s going on there?), Dangerous serves as a keen reminder why those days ever existed. Long live the King.