Because his personal life eventually turned into a very public media circus, it’s easy to forget that Michael Jackson — a lifelong professional musician — was still making good music into this decade, as Mike Heyliger illustrates in the following piece he wrote for Musichelpweb.com on Jackson’s 50th birthday. â€”Ed.
If you bought into the hype spewed by the mainstream press and Michael Jacksonâ€™s detractors, 2001’s Invincible was a flop of colossal proportions. Of course it was no Thriller or Off the Wall, but it stands as a fairly contemporary, often good, and occasionally awesome album from the King of Pop. Was it a sales bust? Considering only 20 or so albums a year sold more than two million copies at the beginning of this decade and Invincible broke that barrier, I would say no.
After the debacle that was 1995â€™s HIStory, Michael retreated back to the lab to create an album that would focus less on his personal problems and more on good music, period. In the six years between HIStory and Invincible, the entire teen-pop industry had been rebuilt on top of a sound he created. From Sisqo to Usher to BeyoncÃ© to Britney to Backstreet and ‘N Sync, damn near every pop or soul artist coming up owed a big debt to Mike, a trend thatâ€™s grown even more prevalent in the seven years since Invincible‘s release.
The first thing you notice is that Michael the balladeer is back. The man hadnâ€™t whipped out a slow jam since Badâ€™s â€œLiberian Girlâ€ back in â€˜87, but Invincible finds him bringing sexy back about five years before Justin Timberlake. â€œBreak of Dawnâ€ is a summery song that finds the King of Lotharios promising to â€œmake sweet love till the break of dawn”; get the visual out of your head and concentrate on the songâ€™s sweet melody, the calming background arrangement, and the effervescent chorus.
â€œButterfliesâ€ is more of the same: over a thumping groove from neo-soul producers Dre & Vidal, Michael testifies about a girl who makes him ridiculously nervous. This song wouldnâ€™t sound out of place on Off the Wall, with its deep bottom, airy harmonies, and Michael singing in a casual cadence thatâ€™s ever so slightly behind the beat. Itâ€™s easily his best performance in years. His vocal is exquisite, especially when he slips into a mind-melting falsetto in the second verse; it’s even more impressive when you realize the man doesnâ€™t have a nose to sing through.
â€œ2000 Wattsâ€ finds Michael jumping straight into the space age with an energetically jumpy production. The lyrics make no sense, but the high-energy arrangement makes you dance, and Michael brings out his deepest vocal tones for this one. The album’s first single, â€œYou Rock My World,â€ is sunny and pleasant enough, although it sounds like a watered-down version of â€œRemember the Timeâ€ (which in itself was a watered-down â€œRock With Youâ€). Nevertheless, the songâ€™s got an addictive chorus and reasonably uncluttered production, not something youâ€™d necessarily associate with the trackâ€™s producer, Rodney Jerkins.
Michael occasionally finds himself lost amid the more modern sounds on Invincible. The opening track, â€œUnbreakable,â€ is a mission statement that favors 1991â€™s â€œJam,â€ but he’s overwhelmed by the bloops and bleeps that come crashing through. It also features a posthumous verse from the Notorious B.I.G. — one that was lifted from a Shaquille Oâ€™Neal album released about six months before the rapperâ€™s death. Biggie verses? Generally cool. Exploiting the dead? Not really cool.
The albumâ€™s title track starts off slow but picks up steam toward the end when the army of Mikes commanding the vocals break it down over a menacing-sounding piano loop and finger snaps. The Timbaland-esque â€œHeartbreakerâ€ is nice, but much of the production just sounds like the audio equivalent of trying to modernize a classic car with garish paint. Michael doesnâ€™t need all the bells and whistles to make great music.
Another demerit against Invincible is that ever since Dangerous (1991), Michael’s felt the need to fill every last second of a CDâ€™s 79-minute running time with music. Itâ€™s not necessary. Give us ten good songs, not 16 that force us to skip around to find the ten good ones!
Invincible‘s crowning achievement is â€œWhatever Happens.â€ For once, Michael stops singing about being persecuted and concentrates on the story of a man and womanâ€™s unconditional love in the face of great odds. It would’ve been an inspired choice for a single and couldâ€™ve made for an awesome video. It’s got a slow-motion, cinematic feel, Michaelâ€™s vocal performance is top-notch, and Carlos Santana comes on board to add a blistering guitar solo. Classic stuff here.
On the poppier side of things, â€œDonâ€™t Walk Awayâ€ is a stunningly heartbreaking ballad that the Backstreet Boys would still salivate in their sleep for. Itâ€™s by far the best of the easy-listening-type material on the album. â€œYou Are My Lifeâ€ is a goopy ballad that put the final nail in the coffin of the once reliable Babyface’s songwriting career. Meanwhile, R. Kelly pops in for the world-peace anthem â€œCry,” which just sounds like an inferior version of the not-that-good-to-begin-with â€œI Believe I Can Fly.â€
â€œThe Lost Childrenâ€ is unlistenable. Even before the child-molestation trial, it was unlistenable. Itâ€™s like Michael got kidnapped by Raffi and decided to make a song either about runaway kids or a loosely metaphorical song about folks who’ve had lost childhoods. Either way, it’s easily one of the five worst things he’s recorded in his adult life.
All told, Invincible isn’t the piece of shit most claim it to be. A leaner structure to the album and more sympathetic production would have resulted in a classic. But when measured against the radio junk that passes for pop-R&B these days, Invincible is stronger than ever.