Michael Jackson has spent most of the last decade gradually stripping himself of the trappings of his former identity and trying to transform himself into a superstar Everyman, cosmetically and otherwise--at least by the alienated accounts of snippy brother Jermaine, tattletale sister LaToya and an unauthorized biographer or two.
With the omnipresent goal of outselling 1982’s “Thriller” (48 million copies worldwide) by now a legendarily impossible obsession, each new piece of product from Jackson is designed not just with mass but global appeal in mind. His new album includes an earnest thank-you credit--"to the world, my love!” Clearly, Jackson intends this stuff to play as well in Poland and Punjab as in Peoria.
Given Jackson’s outsize bid to transcend all demographics--race, age, nationality--in becoming the biggest star known to man, is there any way the musical missives that he sends out to a waiting world every half-decade or so could avoid turning more and more generic?
More to the point, how dangerous can a man who literally wants to please everyone afford to be again?
Not very, unless you count making a confusedly rebellious and risque video for the single “Black or White,” which inspired a few phone calls from concerned parents, to be really risky, envelope-pushing stuff circa 1991.
All a viewer could figure is that Jackson wants to have it every possible way--a role model for the world’s children and a bad cat. Meow.
“Dangerous,” the album, arrives in stores Tuesday and guess what? Like the video, it too is a messy grab-bag of ideas and high-tech non sequiturs, with something for everyone from the man who has everything. In other words, Merry Christmas!
At the risk of sounding uncynical, it can be said that, for all the weaknesses inherent, it’s a dandy stocking-stuffer . Relatively tame, and wildly unfocused, “Dangerous” is also mostly good, expertly made fun.
Though it’s far from his best work, Jackson really can’t lose with this project, since literally no one in the world except Jackson himself--and possibly a few Japanese executives--holds the realistic expectation that this or any album he’ll ever make again will outsell or outphenomenalize “Thriller.”
There’s nothing here that remotely approaches the greatness of “Billie Jean,” but he’s still got the touch, and the grooves themselves will go a long way toward restoring some of the credibility Jackson inevitably loses with some of the mixed-up image-mongering between albums. The album’s state-of-the-art sounds will surely be just as carefully scrutinized and copied as all the video dance steps yet to be seen.
If the goal is not just to maintain a crowd-pleasing status quo but to provide us a revealing sense of the artist’s identity, though, well . . . Michael still isn’t quite singular enough for that.
Lest he be pinned down to a persona, Jackson covers most of the conceivable bases--coming off in these 14 tracks and 77 minutes as a little bit sexy, a little shy, a little spiritual, a little lusty, sort of sensitive, intensely paranoid, sweet, demanding, put-upon, misogynist, hugely humanitarian and, of course, just a wee bit dangerous.
This is really a two-part album, though, and the first half does have a remarkable uniformity, with good reason. The chief surprise here--at least after all those allegations that Michael has altered his physical appearance to look relatively raceless--is that the first six songs sound so consistently and outrightly, well, black .
Black as in hip-hop and rap, as in urban contemporary, as in up-to-the-minute R&B jams, that is, if not themes. These lead-off tracks slam , as they say in the trade, with emphatic, roof-rattling dance beats, and some of them go on at enough length to pretty much serve as their own extended remixes.
Not coincidentally, these first six songs--plus the 14th and last--were all co-written and co-produced by “new jack swing” king and Guy architect Teddy Riley, whose stamp is unmistakable. In fact, Riley’s touch is so familiar that a handful of tunes even sound like Guy tracks with Jackson singing on top.
Here, at least, Jackson has done something that sounds good and different--and, whoops, like someone else.
Once Riley leaves the picture, diversity sets in, with results for both better and worse. The remaining tunes were either produced by Jackson alone or in tandem with Bill Bottrell, and it’s this second half of the album that more resembles his hit work with Quincy Jones, with a far-flung potpourri of lighter-rhythmed pop fare that’s more akin to “Bad--The Sequel.”
The first and worst of these non-Riley tracks is the saccharine “Heal the World,” as abrupt a shift as possible from the jolting dance attacks that precede it. Alone at the helm, Jackson ventures into the realm of virtual self-parody, with a Marty Paich orchestral arrangement better suited for Barbra Streisand, a full choir backing that kicks in at about the same time as an inspirational key change, and a disingenuous chorus that in classic ambiguous-altruistic fashion enthuses: “Heal the world / Make it a better place / For you and me / And the entire human race.” No, he doesn’t elaborate.
Having a song this goofily embarrassing make the final cut is as vivid an illustration as you could ask for of the danger of being surrounded by too many yes-men.
The second half kicks off to an immediate lift with the pop-rocker “Black or White,” whose maddeningly simple, insistent guitar riff is lodged in craniums willing and unwilling alike right about now. “Give In to Me” has the requisite guest appearance by a hard-rock guitarist--this time, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash (who also puts in a cameo at the beginning of “Black”)--and, along with “Who Is It,” recaptures some of the slinky, insinuating feel of “Billie Jean.”
An odd pairing of spirituals, both nicely framed by the Andrae Crouch Singers, crops up late in the game: “Will You Be There” is outright gospel, even ending with the besieged Jackson addressing his Maker, presumably, in a teary-voiced spoken-word coda. Lest he seem too sanctified, though, it’s quickly followed by “Keep the Faith,” which is strictly bootstrap city--the ever-popular secular gospel of learning to love yourself.
The album wraps up with a reprise of Riley’s touch, with the Guy guy helping out on the darkly sexy title song, in which Jackson again talks to God--this time praying for deliverance from the Billie Jean-like temptress threatening to seduce him away from his steady. By song’s end it sounds like “lust’s strange inhumanity” is gonna nab him anyway.
But which Jackson is for real? The humanist-of-the-year who croons, “In my heart, I feel you are all my brothers”? The world cheerleader who counsels that you “can climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest sea, hee "? The wounded soul who tells God, “Everyone’s taking control of me, seems that the world’s got a role for me, I’m so confused”? Or the suspicious control freak who tells his girl (and probably, by extension, his audience), “Don’t try to understand me, just simply do the things I say. . . . Give it when I want it”?
Undoubtedly, all of these entertaining confusions of personae, not to mention the guy in the video whose fly is down. Not at all wary of his Peter Pan image, Jackson has nicknamed his private compound Neverland; perhaps, in honor of all the compass-less Boys he represents, his next one-word album title should be “Lost.”