Thursday, June 25, 2009


I wrote this piece in 2004 and revised it slightly in 2005:

Oh, Michael. So often, you just can't leave well enough along. I'm reminded of that (but that's not all - patience, we'll get there) listening to your recent, recontextualizing boxed set (about time!), The Ultimate Collection. For instance, take "Unbreakable," from '02's D.O.A. album Invincible. Cowritten and coproduced with Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins (who most recently reminded us that he's still got it via Destiny's Child's "Lose My Breath"), this is a spectacularly lean and muscular R&B track. You give a great, gritty vocal on it, one of those through-gritted-teeth performances that come so naturally to you these days, and which fit your favorite lyrical tone of the past decade - paranoia, that'd be - so nicely. Yeah, it sounded a bit late-'90s when it was released just over two years ago, but with a tight edit, I think it could've still been a hit. But you had to mess with a good thing, mistakenly thinking you were buying yourself insurance, didn't you? I understand that having the Notorious B.I.G. lace HIStory's "This Time Around" was sensational, MJ, I do. But using a rap of his lifted from another record - let alone it being a friggin' Shaquille O'Neal record which was a single - should've smelled bad at the idea stage. Maybe there's no one left in your orbit to advise you against such moves anymore, Michael. Is there? Or are you truly now surrounded with only "yes" men? Come back to the five and dime, Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson.

See, here's the sad truth, Jacko (I know you hate that nickname, but it's got worldwide currency): people don't realize, anymore, how brilliant you're capable of (still) being. They realize instead how irrational you're capable of being. Exhibit A: "You Rock My World," also from Invincible. The easy, breezy, beautiful counterpart to "Unbreakable," also made with Jerkins' assistance, is a masterful single. Or would've been, at least, had you released it the year you made it: 1999. Instead, it sat on a shelf for three years, by which point it was sadly outdated, and the public knew it. So "World" and its attendant album flopped; they deserved much better.

Of course, it doesn't help that you've tried so desperately to regain pop relevance in the past decade-plus that you've hopped into bed with almost any hot producer you found willing. [Be honest, Mike: you've called Dr. Dre, haven't you? How about Pharrell?] It doesn't have to be that way, though. I was shocked to discover, while reading The Ultimate Collection's fine liner notes (written by no less than Nelson George), that '87's "Michael's back, bitches!" ballsy first salvo from Bad (to the haters: who else could announce his return, following up the biggest-selling album of all time, with a midtempo ballad?!), "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," was actually recorded in 1982. Yet it still sounded fresh, still sounds timeless, and certainly sounds nothing (much) like the contents of Thriller. That's what you're capable of, Michael. Think about that.

And that's just a beginning, one of a myriad of potential jumping-off points offered by this boxed set. There are, of course, the strings of stunning singles from Off the Wall and Thriller - "Billie Jean," for one, sounds just as sparkling and shiny today as it did some 22 years ago. There's the first flushes of you feeling out your identity as a writer and producer, such as on "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," the smash you wrote with your little bro Randy for the family gang: that sinuous, sexy piano riff hitting it straight outta the park from the first note. The awesomely machinistic tracks you were making circa Dangerous are (nearly) all here, too. And there's the previously unreleased material you've gifted us with here, some of which is extremely eye-opening.

Foremost among these is "In the Back." You produced this one all by yourself, even with layering the work of some 20-odd musicians on it, and it's stunning. It provides an eye into your creative process - with presumably unfinished lyrics, you spend some of the song just "dut-dut-dut"ing. The muted trumpet here is gorgeous, too. But ultimately, this one comes down to its swirling, ominously luscious music on the chorus, a virtual orchestra of faux-woodwinds (I assume it's all keyboards), strings, and keyboards themselves, laid against a stark percussion track. This isn't remotely house, but I wonder how much Masters at Work would love to get their hands on it, just to play. I'm sure they'd love the demo version of "P.Y.T.," a take which bears almost no resemblance (save its chorus lyrics) to the version which ended up as one of Thriller's seven top 10 singles. This version's cowritten by James Ingram and has completely different lyrics and music - and is scads better. You get to spend your time cooing and singing in that rich high register you've got, Michael, taking your time and luxuriating in it, from the sound of it (the tempo here isn't near the frantic pace of the released version, either, much more midtempo). And you make it sound so effortless.

That's not to say that this 4 CD/1 DVD (of a great late-period [i.e., '90s] concert you gave in Bucharest, of all places) set is nothing but an embarassment of riches. Let's be honest: most of the unreleased ballads, from "Scared of the Moon" (pretty [and] vacant) to "Beautiful Girl" (nothing new to see here, people, move along), should've stayed that way. And in case three words attached to "We Are Here to Change the World" - "from Captain EO" - aren't embarassing enough, the song's surprisingly awful music certainly should be, Mike. But to hear all of your classics - and there's a good two discs' worth here - alongside, at long last, the cream of your work with your brothers (from "The Love You Save" to "Lovely One" to the delightfully silly Jagger-assisted "State of Shock"), augmented with rarities which, while not always successful, are nearly always at least interesting (and speaking of creative process, as I was earlier, the spare, voice-and-piano [is that Lionel?] demo of "We Are the World" is fascinating), makes this a boxed set to cherish. But can you beat every single odd and come back as a force, either artistically or commercially, let alone both? I hope so, though the odds aren't so great, Michael. [Let's be honest, okay?] In which case, if nothing else, thanks for the memories.

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