New Jackson Swing: Dangerous 20 Years Later, Part 2
“I believe that all art has as its ultimate goal the union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine. ” – Michael Jackson, Ebony Magazine 1992
On November 26, 1991, singer/songwriter Michael Jackson released his eighth solo album, Dangerous. With the production of New Jack Swing producer Teddy Riley, Jackson was eager to spread his wings and get personal with his audience. Riley’s aggressive beats on songs like “She Drives Me Wild,” and “Can’t Let Her Get Away” not only kept his fans dancing frantically, but they were the inspiration MJ craved to pen some of his most personal lyrics to that point. Not only was he trying to educate and unite his fans with his new found sense of “political maturity” but he was also trying to reconcile these feelings within himself. Just as the in song, “Will You Be There,” Jackson is aware of his power of the public and is weary as a result of the expectations, asking his Maker to guide him so that he can carry the heavy burden. The composition was him speaking to the Burning Bush on Mt. Sinai.
“But they told me a man should be faithful, walk when not able, and fight ’til the end/but I’m only human…Everyone’s talking control of me/seems that the world’s got a role for me/I’m so confused, will you show it to me/You’ll be there for me, and care enough to hear me.” – “Will You Be There?”
Not only was Michael becoming bolder with his socio-political opinions, but he became more open about his own inner demons. Tracks like “In the Closet,” “Who Is It,” and the title track dealt with a reoccurring theme of female betrayal. Unlike songs like “This Place Hotel,” “Workin’ Day and Night,” or “Billie Jean,” Michael was no longer able to stave off his baser temptations. Michael used songs like “Liberian Girl” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” to express his beliefs in love only in Godly setting, with subtle praises of abstinence and marriage. But by the time he got to Dangerous, it seemed the line between the spirit and the flesh was getting more blurred:
“And then it happened: she touched me/as the lips of a strange woman drops as a honeycomb/and he mouth was smoother than oil/her inner spirit as sharp as a two-edged sword/but I loved it, ‘cause it’s dangerous.” – “Dangerous”
As a result of both Dangerous’ heavy New Jack Swing beats and the ominous complexity of the lyrical content, Michael’s vocal technique saw a major overhaul. Most of the public recognized MJ as a high tenor with a sexy vibrato. He had already adopted a more aggressive vocal projection on the Bad album, but his overall tone and timbre remained intact. It would have been easy to assume that with Teddy Riley, who’d produced singers like Bobby Brown and Aaron Hall, that Jackson would utilize his vibrato more than ever. However, he allowed himself to have the song dictate how his voice would react. On tracks like “Jam,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” and “Can’t Let He Get Away,” MJ reduced his voice to a wretched rasp, matching the volatile mood of the lyric and beat, like a voyeuristic sage in the shadows. He took using your voice as an instrument to a literal level, using his voice on the rhythm track of songs like “In the Closet,” “Can’t Let Her Get Away” and “Who Is It.” Michael had been experiment with “beat boxing” since his days on Philadelphia International Records with his brothers. It would become his primary method of writing and demoing tracks. By the time Dangerous was being recorded, he and Riley decided to enhance the swing beats by using MJ’s beat boxing as the main rhythmic foundation of certain tracks, layering complementing musical elements around it.
With the combination of Jackson and Jones’ amicable parting of ways and the inception of the Compact Disc, Michael was able to expand on his repressed thirst for sonic indulgence. Michael did things that wouldn’t have happened on Quincy’s watch. Song length for one example. He wanted the original version of “Billie Jean” to be 11 minutes with a length instrumental intro. In 1987, he envisioned Bad to be a triple LP with 33 songs, most of which he wrote himself. Since Quincy felt that the tracks need to be compacted to pack a stronger sonic punch on vinyl, Jackson’s song’s exceeded the five minute mark only four total times in his three previous albums and each LP clocked in at an average of 44 minutes long. Judging by the end results in both cases, Quincy’s restraint was not malicious and were indeed necessary decisions. However, CDs were growing as the primary distributing format in music and utilized digital technology. No longer handcuffed by the restrictions of analog, Dangerous became one of the first albums that was recorded in mind for the CD format. At 14 songs, Dangerous clocked in at 77 minutes, just three shy of the 80 minute limit a CD will hold. It had 10 songs that went to or exceeded five minutes, and half of those exceed six minutes! With “Jam,” he finally had that song with a long, groove-driven intro, “In the Closet” and the title track had lengthy, instrumental funk fade-outs, and Will You Be There started with a choir singing Beethoven concerto. Jackson may have used his former Motown label and mentor Stevie Wonder as a guideline for his experimenting. Wonder released a string of hit albums in the early 1970s, flanked by co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margoleff. Their four albums together, including Talking Book and Innervisions, contained songs that were short and to the point. Once Stevie parted ways with them in 1975, he was free to record however he chose, and the end result was Songs in the Key of Life, a 21 song double album with seven tracks that exceeded six minutes, four of them went over seven. (Jackson was present during many of the Songs in the Key of Life recording sessions). With that kind of precedent, MJ had free range to execute his ambitious ideas.
Dangerous went on to sell 8 million copies in the US, debuting at number 1 and contained four top ten Billboard Hot 100 singles, seven top thirty’s total. However, it’s been said that Dangerous was a disappointment for not living up to the sales of the imposing monster that was Thriller’s 29 million copies sold domestically. As a retort to such a an opinion, the point must be made that with the exception of Thriller, four of Jackson’s five other albums on Epic Records (Off the Wall, Bad, Dangerous, HIStory) all sold within the 7-10 million range in America. Worldwide, Dangerous is one of the 27 albums that has sold more the 30 million copies (Michael has three albums over 30 million sales worldwide, the other two are Thriller and Bad). So instead being a disappointment, it was a continuation of consistency. The album’s influence is still felt today, with many artist adopting Michael’s low register half-talking, half singing style, such as R. Kelly and Justin Timberlake. Producers like Timbaland and Missy Elliot use beat boxing in their production in a similar fashion as tracks from the album. Most severly, it was one of the first albums to take advantage of the Compact Disc format, resulting in many artists fitting 14 to 20 tracks on a CD. Dangerous ultimately will not have the public esteem that Thriller or Off the Wall has, but Dangerous‘ influences on recording artists and producers are more visible in today’s music than any other MJ album before or since. Happy 20th anniversary.
Thank you for listening, and remember: Black Americans may only take up 10 percent of the country’s popular, but that tenth is talented.
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