New Jackson Swing: Dangerous 20 Years Later, Part 1
“I wanted to do an album that was like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. So that in a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever. I would like to see children and teenagers and parents and all races all over the world, hundreds and hundreds of years from now, still pulling out songs from that album and dissecting it. I want it to live.” – Michael Jackson, Ebony Magazine 1992
On November 26, 1991, singer/songwriter Michael Jackson released his eighth solo album, Dangerous. In his two preceding records, Thriller (1982), and Bad (1987), Jackson, along with producer Quincy Jones, created the template for what’s now considered modern pop music. However, at that point in his career, he wanted to make sure people didn’t forget where he came from, and did so by enlisting producer Teddy Riley, the architect of the soul/hip-hop hybrid known as New Jack Swing. With Dangerous, a new innovative partnership was forged; beginning a new chapter in Jackson’s career, and New Jack Swing would reach its biggest audience, putting an urban phenomenon under the global spotlight.
The seeds of what was to become Dangerous were actually sown more than a decade prior to its first recording session. Jackson’s 1979 album Off The Wall had exploded into a multi-platinum seller and was an innovative recording thanks to Quincy Jones’ progressive blending of soul, jazz and disco influences. However, Michael felt slighted when the album only garnered a single Grammy nomination, for Best R&B Vocal Performance (which he won for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough). Off the Wall was the first record to spawn four top ten pop hits off a single album and he believed it deserved to be nominated in the big categories. MJ saw this as a message sent by his peers and the record industry higher-ups: You’re just the biggest “black” artist in the world. This is what comedian Paul Mooney eloquently refers to as a “nigger wake-up call.” Jackson was now determined to make sure his next record would break all racial barriers. His next album was Thriller and we know how that turned out. Fast-forward to 1990. There are murmurs that Michael, despite his unprecedented success, had lost touch with the Black music community that helped make him into an international star since his days in The Jackson 5. As these whispers gradually getting louder, coupled with changing musical trends, MJ knew it was time for a drastic change.
Always a master of re-invention, the King of Pop called Teddy Riley, who had been riding a hot streak of hits, producing and writing for Keith Sweat (“I Want Her”), Al B. Sure! (“If I’m Not Your Lover”), and Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”). Jackson’s attempts at update his sound by himself was coming slowly, and being unimpressed with songs penned for him by Babyface and La Reid, he made the decision to work with Riley after hearing Guy’s single “Spend the Night.” When arriving at Jackson’s studio in 1990, armed with over 60 beats, Michael stopped everything to write and record a fully completed version of the fifth track Riley had played for him. That song became “Remember the Time.” This was the sound he knew would not only continue his dominance of music at large but an opportunity to make a grand, artistic, as well as personal statement that had somewhat eluded him prior to that point.
Michael’s songwriting took a dramatic leap on Dangerous. As NOI Minister Louis Farrakhan stated in a 1993 interview on the Arsenio Hall Show, Michael’s compositions and song selections were beginning to be “politically mature.” Songs like “Jam,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” (written by Riley) and “Black or White” offered some biting commentary on the world at large; exposing white-supremist inner dialogue that still raged in many Americans within an increasingly PC society, as well as charging the powers-that-be with using deceptive and manipulative tactics to misinform the masses in an effort to maintain control of their minds and the wallets:
“I took my baby on a Saturday bang/’Boy, is that girl with you?’/’Yes, we’re one in the same…I ain’t scare of your brother, I ain’t scared of no sheets…” – Black or White
“I have to find my peace ‘cause no one seems to let me be/false prophets cry of doom, what are the possibilities…I’m conditioned by the system…she prays to God, to Buddha, then she sings the Talmud song/confusions contradict the self, do we know right from wrong?” – Jam
The irony of Jackson’s new political boldness on record was his choice to mask it with the content of the accompanying music videos. For “Black or White,” Michael was depicted of travelling all over the world, partaking in the musical traditions of numerous cultures, from Africa to India to Russia, all before dazzling three-channel simulcasted audience with the digital face morph effects. Only briefly do we see Jackson visually address the social ills of which the song is about in the bridge when he’s running through a burning cross. At the end, he seen doing a salacious dance number while destroying cars and windows. No one knew the dance was inspired by his frustration of bigotry and it was edited out as a result. It was only years later that he included racial epithets on the object he was smashing to get his point across. The same can be said for the “Jam” video. Such an attacking lyric was put on the back burner for a more visceral depiction of the term “Jam,” with basketball great Michael Jordan having a lark of a one-on-one with Jackson, conversely coupled with Jackson attempting to teach his signature dance moves to Jordan. Perhaps MJ was challenging his fans to look beyond watch they saw to find the truth, or maybe he just wanted relatable imagery that would attract the most people. Either way, the messages seemed diluted by the videos.
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