Pros: Tons of great singles, and the deep tracks don't disappoint. Teddy Riley is the Man.
Cons: Occasionally cloying in its earnestness, a lot to take in one sitting.
Michael Jackson's Dangerous has always been one of the black sheep of my record collection -- It's that album that I always keep around, because, well, I never know when I'm going to want to listen to it, but it never quite fit in with the rest of my albums. Dangerous was released in '91, when I was in the process of going through a (brief) metal phase, where Guns 'n Roses, Megadeth, Metallica and Faith no More were the prizes of my collection. Then came grunge, then came industrial-via-Nine Inch Nails, and from there, I was lost to the indie scene for years. I don't even know what, exactly, it was that prompted me to make Michael Jackson's last great opus a part of my collection...I guess I'd held a bit of a candle for him ever since I saw Moonwalker (seriously!), and I bought it out of some sort of skewed sense of preteen nostalgia. As such, "Black or White" looked and sounded cool enough (even if watching the premiere of the extended edit of the video scared the crap out of me), and I somehow ended up with the album. Maybe I even saved up my paper route money and bought it myself, I don't remember, but I got it somehow.
It's 15 years later, now, and only recently have I begun to appreciate it for the masterpiece it is, as the last time Michael Jackson wielded mass critical and popular credibility. What once was an overlong, overwrought beast of an album, I now see as an album where the artist is putting everything he's got into the music he loves, the music he was born to perform.
Just a quick look at the tracklist, and it amazes me, the number of utterly fantastic songs that I can see and remember right off the bat. I mean, "Jam"? I love that song! "New Jack" Teddy Riley took Michael Jackson's sound, ran it through his contemporary (for the time) R&B filter, and managed to portray a Michael Jackson that's determined and powerful. The sycopation in the verse is almost off-putting at first, until you start to feel it rattling your ribcage, and then a quick Go with it, go with it! and we're into the chorus. This was vintage saying-a-lot-but-not-really-saying-anything Michael Jackson, and it's got one of the best beats he's ever sung over. And it's got Heavy D! You know Heavy D, right? The guidance counselor in Boston Public? Come on, he's the man! Don't mess with Heavy D. "Jam" wasn't one of the most successful singles from Dangerous, but it was one of the best.
The best single from Dangerous, however, was...(wait for it)..."Remember the Time" (yeah, I said it), the video for which is, I think, the only place where you could see Iman (you go, David Bowie!), Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson, and Jackson in the same place. Or, if it isn't, it should be. For the most part, this is a more subdued jam from Riley, mostly more suitable for swaying than getting down, but it has about four different hooks to it, the all-Michael background vocals are exquisite, and MJ's rant at the end is classic MJ-scat, where he riffs on his own words, adding noises and WHOOOs for good measure, in that pained, almost angry voice he's got when he's at his most impassioned. This is great stuff.
What else is there? "In the Closet" is sexy-MJ when you could take him seriously doing sexy-ish stuff, complete with sexy, seductive spoken word from Monaco's Princess Stéphanie and another Riley production that literally pops. Seriously, listen to that snare sound. If you want it, Jackson says, then won't you taste it? Ooo! Sweaty-like. "Will You Be There" (a.k.a. "That Song From Free Willy) is a near-unwieldy seven minutes and 40 seconds long, starting with an extended church choir introduction, and then quickly finding Michael at his humble, backed by a sparse beat and a piano. Quickly, however, the song builds in instrumentation and vocals, with what sounds like that same choir going full-on gospel over the catchy, scale-based hook that defines the entire song. In true gospel fashion, the key of the song just keeps going up, and it eventually becomes one of the few supposedly inspirational songs that can truly inspire. "Who Is It" is a bracing, painful, yet funky tale of infidelity (Who is it? Was it a friend of mine? Who is it? Is it my brother?), and then, yes, there's "Black or White", which is sorta repetitive, sorta catchy, but now notable for that bridge which features some of the most furious synth work backed by guitars in pop music. And Macaulay Culkin was involved, which never hurts. Very nice.
And "Heal the World"? Yes, fine, it's so cheesy as to be almost painful, but the sincerity is there, and I find it kind of charming. I mean, come on, people everywhere wouldn't have been singing it in jest if they couldn't remember it, right? That chorus is catchy like a cold, and I dare you to tell me otherwise.
And yet, even amongst all of those wonderful, memorable singles, there are these deeper cuts that absolutely cannot be ignored as well, things like "Why You Wanna Trip on Me", which despite its now-dated slang, is still funky as hell, and "Give In to Me", which I particularly enjoy for its sense of overblown drama and cock-rock-ballad feel, complete with big strings and lyrics that speak of a love borne of pain, or something like that -- regardless, it's Michael at his most fierce and fearless, and didn't deserve to simply be a deep track on a great album. "She Drives Me Wild" vies with "Jam" for the title of the album's deepest groove, and even features one of the dudes from Wreckx-N-Effect (yeah "Rump Shaker"!) on a quick eight bars. Good times. "Keep the Faith" is more gospel goodness, and "Gone Too Soon" is not only the shortest song on the album, it features the most beautiful vocal performance from Jackson, who to that point rides on his own consistency, never showing off, really, just consistently being himself, and then...Like the loss of sunlight, on a cloudy afternoooooooooon, he sings, and that "noooooooooon" is on the most perfect high note, not showy, not forced, just...beautiful, that it's enough to make you sit up and say "oh yeah...dude can SING." Michael Jackson's voice so often is overshadowed by the songs he's singing, that it's refreshing to hear him highlight it once in a while.
The disc ends on "Dangerous", which was kind of taboo and cool back when I was 12, because I didn't want my mom hearing me listening to a record that featured the word damn prominently, but I now realize that it gets by just fine on its big New Jack Beats and Michael's spoken word verses (because, yes, spoken word rules) even if you ignore the damn.
Look, I know that Dangerous is never going to be given the time of day when put up next to Thriller or even Off the Wall, given the respect for those albums that currently exists, not to mention that those albums are, honestly, better. I can concede that. Still, to forget about Dangerous, an album by a man nearly at his breaking point, an album by a man teetering on the edge of respect and parody, an album that managed to push that man's relevance into one more decade...well, it'd be a shame if Dangerous didn't get the respect it deserves. Maybe it's just a sentimental attachment to a certain time in my life, maybe it's just the maturity that comes with age allowing me to see an album for more than I once did, but Dangerous has, at least, wrangled that respect from me.
7 million of you have it at home. Go ahead -- break it out, listen to it, and appreciate 77 minutes of what Michael Jackson once was.
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By the way: Anyone want to see the end of the "Black or White" video? The thing that aired right after the Simpsons and scared the living crap out of me? Here it is, for old times sake: