Popdose Flashback ’91: Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous”
A lot of folks point to Dangerous as the album where things went pie-shaped for Michael Jackson. They note the symbolism of Nirvana’s Nevermind knocking Dangerous out of the #1 spot on Billboard’s album chart at the beginning of 1992 and crow about shiny pop music being knocked off it’s throne (never mind that the two biggest selling artists of the subsequent half decade were Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.) I wonder how many people have actually taken the time to listen to the album, because even though there are faults to be found, it’s a much better (not to mention much more forward-thinking) album than it’s given credit for.
While Jackson was indisputably still the King of Pop in 1991, things were not totally ducky in his camp. The unrealistically high hopes for MJ’s last album, 1987’s Bad, were not met. Despite spinning off a record five consecutive #1 singles, tying his own record with 7 top 40 hits overall, and selling 7 million copies in the U.S., Michael was unhappy because the album didn’t match the phenomenal sales of his magnum opus, Thriller. He’d also suffered an embarrassing donut at the 1988 Grammys, losing every award he was nominated for, including Album of the Year, which went to U2 for The Joshua Tree. Acknowledging the need for fresh blood, Michael jettisoned producer Quincy Jones, who’d been behind the boards for Thriller and Bad, in addition to the masterful Off The Wall.
Enter Teddy Riley. The Harlem-born producer was the founder of modern R&B as we know it, marrying hip-hop’s sonic textures to R&B’s smooth vocals and calling it “new jack swing”. After MJ swung and missed with a couple other producers (including L.A. Reid and Babyface), Riley was summoned to collaborate on many of Dangerous‘s tracks. It was a move that brought out the best in both musicians. By combining Jackson’s gift for melody and intriguing lyrical content with modern production and hard-hitting beats, Dangerous brought The King of Pop firmly into the 90’s.
Not one dud can be found in any of the seven Riley/Jackson collaborations, six of which frontload Dangerous. You want a solid half hour workout? Play Side One (sorry, this is the Nineties we’re talking about; I’m in cassette mode). “Jam” leads things off with an angry/hurt-sounding Michael speed-singing through a litany of the world’s ills. A rap cameo by the late Heavy D heralds the first appearance of a hip-hop artist on an MJ track. “Why You Wanna Trip On Me” continues the social commentary theme, as Riley provides a more bare-bones track (basically a synthesized rhythm track with some guitar strums), and Michael rips the media a new one for focusing on him when there are obviously more important things going on in the world. It’s interesting to note that as much as MJ may have been reaching for the stars commercially, both of these songs (and most of Side One) were probably a little too “black” for pop radio, which didn’t totally embrace hip-hop flavored R&B for another year or two.
“Remember The Time” (arguably Dangerous‘s most fondly-remembered song) is a bit of a comedown after the intensity of Dangerous’s first few tracks, and it’s swirling harmonies can be compared favorably to 1979’s “Rock With You”, one of Michael’s most enduring hits. It was the album’s most obvious “hit single”, a slightly safer option on what up until that point was Michael’s most aggressively rhythmic album to date.
Riley pulls an “exit, stage left” maneuver after “Remember The Time”, not showing up again until the title track (which closes the album.) The remainder of Dangerous is largely handled by Michael himself, and finds him embracing some more eclectic sounds musically. The results are generally solid, if not always jaw-dropping. While there’s certainly a large element of calculation here (as there is on every Michael Jackson album), the craftsmanship alone is worth sticking around for. “Will You Be There” and “Keep The Faith” follow an inspirational path a la Bad’s “Man in the Mirror” and are probably the two best tracks on the album’s second half. Despite all the talk about Michael forsaking his roots as his career progressed, these two tunes would have been right at home at any black church in the country. The sleazy hair metal of “Give In To Me” probably came a year or two too late to become a hit, but serves as a worthy sequel to “Dirty Diana”. Meanwhile, Michael unleashes his inner Streisand on “Gone Too Soon”, an elegant (and beautifully sung) tribute to Ryan White, a teenager from Michael’s home state of Indiana who became one of the first public faces of AIDS when the disease hit the news in the mid Eighties.
Here’s a fact that freaked me out a little bit once I realized it. This fourteen track, 75 minute album only has two legitimately bad songs on it. Look, I appreciate the sentiment behind “Black Or White” and “Heal the World.” Really, I do. I’m not a Scrooge. But, geez, are these songs awful. The former song is just Michael-on-Autopilot, and as much as Michael was a video artist as well as a musician, this is the only song of his that makes me feel like the song was created to support the visual and not vice versa. Of course, the song went on to spend an eternity at #1, so what the hell do I know? As for “Heal The World,” I can’t say I’ve heard the song in full in at least a decade (my finger instinctively reaches for the skip button whenever I’m playing Dangerous on CD), but it just reminds me of a bad Carpenters song. It’s well-meaning, but phenomenally hokey and cheesy. There’s a little too much “Kumbaya” going on for me.
Dangerous certainly kept the lights on in Neverland, becoming Michael’s second album to debut at #1 on the charts and making him the first artist to pull seven Top 40 hits from three consecutive albums. While he didn’t have his finger directly on the pulse of pop culture anymore, he was still a pretty big deal-especially overseas, where fans went batshit crazy at his shows. Of course, towards the end of the Dangerous campaign in 1993, things went pie-shaped for real, and the slow and sad downward spiral that culminated in Michael’s 2009 death (I still hesitate when acknowledging the fact that he isn’t around anymore) began in earnest.
When I polled the staff of my own blog (mostly rock fans) to create a list of the best albums of the Nineties, I was stunned that Dangerous almost landed in the Top 20. I couldn’t help but thinking if I’d polled the same group of people five years ago, Dangerous may not have even placed in the Top 100. Of course, Michael Jackson would have been alive then. The death of an artist almost always triggers a reassessment of said artist’s talent, and Dangerous proved that Michael Jackson, even ten years past his prime, was still a commercial and musical force to be reckoned with.