Still Dangerous After 25 Years:
Michael Jackson’s Re-Affirmation of Blackness & Social Maturation
By Matthew Allen
There have been many ways to describe the late Michael Jackson. Prodigious; innovative; reclusive; ambitious; eccentric; visionary. November 26th marked the 25th anniversary of his eighth solo album Dangerous, an album that added a much less used adjective; prophetic. In 2016, we use terms like “woke” and “unapologetically Black” to describe some of the artists today like Beyonce on “Formation,” D’Angelo on “The Charade,” or Kendrick Lamar on “The Blacker the Berry.” Despite the condition of his skin, MJ wasn’t just unapologetically Black on Dangerous, but he was aggressively Black as well. By fusing brooding sonic imagery with Teddy Riley‘s beats, with lyrical themes of race mixing, political hypocrisy, sexual ambivalence and spiritual hesitance, this album laid the framework for the contemporary R&B provocateur.
The conception of Dangerous is fraught with irony. Nearly a dozen years prior to its release, a 21-year-old Michael Jackson was riddled with disappointment. His 1979 album Off the Wall had been a smash success; selling seven million copies in the US and releasing a record four top 10 pop singles. The reason behind Jackson’s ire was that he only received one Grammy nomination, for Best R&B Performance (winning for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”). Considering the sophisticated arrangements courtesy of producer Quincy Jones and its radical melding disco, jazz and pop, the industry had reduced MJ to simply a Black artist, hitting him with – what Paul Mooney refers to – a “nigger wake-up call.” By all accounts, Jackson vowed that his next album would make it impossible for the industry to ignore or relegate as simply a Black record. That record was Thriller.
When Jackson reached the unparallel heights of global reverence, he was criticized for being detached from the Black community that made him a star in the first place. While he made attempts to showcase that he was still “down” during the Bad era, via the videos for “Bad” and “The Way You Make Me Feel,” MJ seemed to no longer fit into a culture that had shifted drastically, thanks to the growing influence of Hip-Hop. Therefore, at the end of the 1980’s, Jackson began to plot his next record and a new image that embraced his Black roots.
After a mutual parting of ways from Jones, the next wave eluded Jackson at first. His own attempts of writing didn’t reach expectations, and when L.A. Reid and Babyface were recruited to write tracks, it still didn’t work. It wasn’t until Jackson heard a song called “Spend the Night” by R&B trio Guy that he finally realized what he needed. He needed Teddy Riley. A Harlem wunderkind, Riley penned and produced classics like Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” before the age of 21. From there he forged a new revolution in Black pop music with Keith Sweat’s Make it Last Forever, Al B. Sure!’s “If I’m Not Your Love” and Guy’s “Groove Me,” among others. His urgent rhythm programming meshed with slick, smooth melodies was a fresh and infectious new style dubbed New Jack Swing.
Once Riley got the call from Jackson, he prepared over 60 beats on a DAT to showcase for the King of Pop. Mike stoically listened, until the fifth beat played. He stopped and informed Teddy that no more would be heard until that beat became a full-fledged song. That song became “Remember the Time.” It was at that point were Riley was officially Michael Jackson’s new producer. They spent a year crafting their songs in an LA studio; Jackson even had a bedroom built in the studio for Riley to sleep in to ensure his full commitment.
Michael’s influence on Riley’s swing beats was paramount. The seven Riley-produced tracks sounded nothing like his previous hits. While songs like Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her” or Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” compelled the audience to move, Riley’s approach with Dangerous were less exuberant and more tactical, more emotionally intense. Riley used all car sound effects for every instrument on “She Drives Me Wild.” He had MJ beat box the rhythm tracks for “In the Closet,” “Who Is It (produced solely by Jackson),”and “Can’t Let Her Get Away.” New Jack Swing never sounded so elevated, dynamic or complex. Furthermore, MJ had opted against using his malleable tenor and vibrato (save for “Remember the Time”) and employed a raspy, extra percussive baritone for most of the album. It was his wish to have each song dictate his vocals, rather than a broad approach to everything.
Jackson had a lot on his mind, and Riley’s music was the key to unlock his most dense and damning lyrics of his career. On album opener “Jam,” MJ spouted off some of his most politically astute statements on wax:
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?
With the urgent refrain, “It’s ain’t too much for me to Jam,”over irrepressible dance beats and turntable scratches, the song served as a an unofficial mission statement for the album: no matter how far gone society has fallen, movement must always be our motivation.
His newfound socio-political awakening was unleashed on the album’s lead single, the self written/produced “Black or White.” A rousing, rock and roll pop smash appeared to be a plea for racial equality on the surface (“it doesn’t matter if your Black or White”), but when you really look at the words, it’s a condemnation on those who oppose racial harmony between the sexes.
I took my baby on a Saturday bang/’Boy, is that girl with you?’/’Yes, we’re one in the same…
Who calls a 33-year-old Black man “boy?” He goes on in the bridge, singing, “I am tired of this devil…” and “I ain’t scared of no sheets.” He was calling out the racist southern rednecks who can’t stand seeing a Black man involved with a White woman. Irony comes into play yet again, when MJ chose to cast the accompanying music videos with A-List celebrities (Macaulay Culkin in “Black or White” and Michael Jordan in “Jam”), fogging up his heavy messaging with more blissful imagery. Without it, the general public perhaps wouldn’t have been so receptive of Jackson’s new political maturity. Jackson was notorious for his studio pranks, but getting a country of white listeners to dance to a song like “Black or White” may have been the grandest, most pognaint, practical joke of his life. However, he was criticized for his “panther dance” in which he repeatedly grabbed his crotch and concurrently destroyed property, illustrating his frustration and anger with bigotry. In the end, it was edited out, but the outcry proved he was justified to be savvy about unleashing his truths. He’d been accustomed to hiding Black expression with veiled pop sheen, slyly fusing African influences into songs like “Workin’ Day & Night,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and “Liberian Girl.”
“In the Closet” and the album’s title track follow a career long arc of Jackson’s (d)evolving ethics on sexually and promiscuity. In the early 1980’s, songs like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Billie Jean” condemned the notion of females using, as he stated in his autobiography, “sex as a weapon,” which he found “a repugnant use of one of God’s gifts.” As the years rolled along, a shift began to take place, as evident in 1987’s “Dirty Diana,” where he’s fighting off the advances of a groupie, but by song’s end, finally gives in and ends up in bed with her. On Dangerous, the ever devout Jackson slipped further into the abyss of desire and lust. “In the Closet” and “Dangerous” are amongst the darkest songs on the album. The former is a lascivious blend of Riley’s organ and MJ’s beat-boxing, demanding his object of desire not to divulge the sordid details of their affair to anyone. The latter, built on a hard swing beat and pulsing bass and piano stabs, is a sequel of sorts to “Heartbreak Hotel,” finding his lover spurned by the salacious lies of a mystery woman; only this time, Michael is drawn by “aura of her presence” and takes her. Never before had Jackson sounded more boldly confessional.
Jackson was equally as candid with about his spirituality on Dangerous, as a way to counteract the lust and social angst he was carrying. Throughout the album, he makes biblical references, such as in “Jam” and “Dangerous.” None were more revealing as “Will You Be There,” a gospel song disguised as pop. Written and produced by Michael himself, the song is both grandiose and minimal – a massive choir singing over a sparse drum march and piano line. “Will You Be There” finds Jackson tackling with the responsibility of being a beacon of change to millions. Crying to his Lord to hold him “like the the river Jordan” and guide him through this tasks, this lyrical conversation with God is the embodiment of Moses and the burning bush:
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!
Once again, though, Jackson had to use diversionary tactics to get a pop audience to digest it. Therefore, he attached it to the Free Willy soundtrack, appearing as a simple, yet inspiring tune underlying a kinship between a child and a whale. Would it have reached the Billboard top 10 without the movie association? Doubtful.
Such tormented expression was summed up by Jackson in an interview with EBONY Magazine in 1992, shortly following the album’s release: “I believe that all art has as its ultimate goal the union between the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine.”
This newly “woke” Jackson continued to resonate with fans. Dangerous debuted at number one on the Billboard Charts in late 1991 and went eight times platinum. While it was deemed a disappointment for not living up to the behemoth sales of Thriller, its impact is clearly severe in present time. Without Dangerous, we’d never get Justin Timberlake‘s pop/hip-hop hybrid FutureSex/LoveSounds, or the unhinged, ominous R&B practiced by The Weeknd, or the introspective regret expressed on Usher’s Confessions, or Beyonce’s aggressive and emotive vocal approach to Lemonade. It achieved what Jackson had prayed for, lifelong analysis from the public. “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,” Jackson continued to EBONY. “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.”
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based music journalist and television producer. In addition to soulhead, his work can be found on EBONY, JET and Wax Poetics Magazines. To keep up with his work, follow him on Twitter and visit his blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict. Check out some of his work for soulhead.