Michael Jackson was a genius—no joke. The man may be more remembered as an entertainer than as an artist, but separately from his groundbreaking dancing, concerts, and music videos, most of his studio output as an adult is very much worth listening to, whether or not you like to dance.
His level of craftsmanship in the studio was exceptionally high, and the picture that emerges from Steve Knopper’s 2015 biography, MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson (which I reviewed here) is of a driven perfectionist who always strove to create something new.
Many disparage his work after 1982’s blockbuster success, Thriller, but since his death in 2009, much of his work has come under considerable especially 1991’s Dangerous. With CHIRP sponsoring a Classic Album Sundays listening party for 1979’s Off the Wall this coming Sunday, it is an ideal time to revisit the adult solo career of the King of Pop.
Born in Gary, Indiana, Jackson, of course, first rose to fame as part of Motown’s family group, the Jackson 5, but he grew itchy to outdo his child stardom as a megastar adult. Off the Wall was the kickoff party, and it is the most frequently high-energy of Jackson’s adult solo releases.
The famous squeal of release (“OOOOOOOOOOOOOH!”) 15 seconds into the album’s opening track, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” is a perfect metaphor for the album: collaborating with producer Quincy Jones, the album shows a budding superstar getting up and boogieing throughout the album, throwing off the metaphorical shackles of his childhood persona, creating some of the most famous and unique dance music ever recorded, with plenty of adult sexuality thrown in.
That said, the hit ballad, “She’s Out of My Life,” the album’s one “downer” track, is one of the album’s most affecting moments, with Jackson audibly getting choked up at the end. The dance moments, however, dominate the album, with the album’s first four songs standing out in this regard. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is, some would say, the album’s peak, but there is plenty here to entertain listeners after that incredible opener. The Stevie Wonder-penned “I Can’t Help It” is a moody, evocative ballad with tremendous dance potential as well.
According to the Knopper biography, Jackson and Jones wanted to destroy disco with this album, and I must say, even with the ubiquity of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You,” the album holds up much better than a lot of ‘70s dance music. It has some eclecticism, but much of Jackson’s crossover ambitions were to be tapped to a much greater degree with his next album, Thriller.
Some critics call Off the Wall Jackson’s peak, while more often, others reserve that title for Thriller, and it’s difficult for me to say which I enjoy more. Off the Wall is arguably more consistent in quality and feel, but the highs of Thriller—“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean”—are, to my ears, unsurpassed by the far majority of dance and pop music ever recorded.
Though I have sometimes faulted the album for sounded dated in its ‘80s production, today I listen to Thriller and hear something worthwhile in every track—yes, even “The Girl Is Mine,” that cheesy duet with Paul McCartney. Jackson sounds on fire on most tracks, taking those squeals and whoops from Off the Wall to new heights on the album’s high points.
The ecstasy amid the paranoia of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” (which Pitchfork justifiably ranked near the top of their list of the best songs of the 1980s) when Jackson brings in the gospel choir to sing, “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma ku sa” (from the ‘70s hit, “Soul Makossa") at the song’s end is one of the peaks of pop music as I know it.
Thriller was Jackson’s first eclectic album as an adult superstar in control of his vision. From the light pop of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” to the hard rock crossover of “Beat It”—featuring Eddie Van Halen on guitar—to the sensuous R&B balladry of “The Lady in My Life,” the album contained something for everyone, and it sure sold that way.
The album, of course, became a monstrous success, overshadowing Jackson’s career after it hit #1 on six continents, produced seven U.S. top 10 singles on Billboard, and became the biggest selling album of all time worldwide.
Still, the album was only part of Jackson’s colossal artistic vision, as future albums would contain a much higher percentage of songs written or cowritten by Jackson. And even though Thriller was the peak of his commercial success, he was far from finished artistically either. Bad, Dangerous, and HIStory all contained exceptional moments to varying degrees of success, and they will be next up in our reevaluation of Jackson’s career.
[For my assessment of how I listened to Thriller few years ago, click here for a Rediscovering Our Record Collections entry on CHIRP’s blog.]