An album as grandiose as the man himself, Michael Jackson’s 1991 release Dangerous was his eighth solo effort, fourth since his break from Motown. Taking an obscene amount of time to record (over a year) and overshadowed by the gratuitous size of the deal Jackson had signed with Sony records (a paltry $800 million dollars) , this album was intended to be a large, epic-scale blockbuster release that would dominate both the American and international markets. Being Jackson’s third consecutive #1 album and sporting seven singles (all complimented by expansive, and in some cases, full-length music videos that had heavy rotation on MTV) that either reached #1 or charted highly at different times, I’d say it got fairly close.
Marking a dramatic shift in Jackson’s career, Dangerous features absolutely no involvement with long-time collaborator and producer Quincy Jones, with Jackson himself and associates Teddy Riley and Bill Bottrell managing the album’s soundscapes instead. Eager to update his sound, Jackson drew inspiration from the ever-growing hip hop and urban dance movements within the United States, most notably ‘new jack swing’, a somewhat forgotten and maligned late-80s/early 90s fusion of hip hop and aspects of contemporary R&B music with artificially produced beats. Riley, a spearhead of the new jack swing explosion through the 1980s (most notably as a producer for Bobby Brown) was the ideal candidate to take the helm. Through his inclusion as co-producer, Jackson was also free to include more personal, intimate subject matter in his music, including messages promoting global unity and racial equality.
Continuing the trend of his album openers being energetic numbers suited for the dance floor, “Jam” immediately introduces Jackson’s audiences to his newly acquired sound, featuring hip hop-style scratching alongside a bursting horn sample, a somewhat understated funk-driven guitar riff, a cameo verse by New York rapper and Riley affiliate Heavy D and a few curious sonic inclusions, from sleigh bells to breaking glass. But what gives the track a real shot of adrenalin are Jackson’s vocals, delivering the refrain “Jam” in short, aggressive bursts with as much emphasis as the beat, setting the tone for much of the album.
Jackson’s superb ability as a craftsman of the pop single couldn’t be more apparent in “Remember the Time”, and despite how antiquated the beat is, it easily has the most infectious hook on the entire album – “Do you remember the tiiiiiime / When we fell in love”, it’s only flaw being that it follows three tracks that share its sound, but not its quality. It’s also the first instance on Dangerous of Jackson fully returning to his iconic singing style, operating in a passionate, softer tone which is a comfortable fit in a track like this. Jackson’s singing continues in a similar vein in “Heal the World”, an innocently optimistic, sombre ballad that is a welcome change in pace and production, making use of acoustic guitar, mellow synthesisers, an evocative string section and a well-placed choir arrangement.
Paying tribute to the re-emergence of mainstream guitar-driven music around the era of Dangerous, “Black or White” reasserts Jackson’s ability to keep pace with shifts in musical trends as opposed to falling into obscurity like some of his contemporaries from the 1980s. Featuring one of the most easily recognisable guitar riffs in pop music, “Black or White” is one of those peculiar songs that for all intents and purposes should have aged at least a little, but still holds up courtesy of Bill Bottrell’s driving guitar work and Jackson’s emphatic, inspired vocals. I was pleased to find through research that the rap verse was not performed by Macauly Kulkin, but rather Bottrell himself (credited as L.T.B.), and is easily the only rap cameo on Dangerousthat actually seems to contribute in a meaningful way.
Dangerous is perhaps at its most ambitious in “Will You Be There”, which completely breaks convention in the form of a rousing prelude by the Cleveland Orchestra performing a section of Beethoven’s 9th, eventually making way for a haunting chorale interlude. It’s not until the 2 minute mark that the track really kicks off with a rumbling, repetitive rhythm supplied by tribal-esque drumming, choral hums and vocals by Jackson at his emotive best – this is my personal highlight of the album, and I promise that has nothing to do with Free Willy. Honest. I can’t imagine why this wasn’t picked as the album closer, as it easily outshines “Keep the Faith”, “Gone Too Soon” and the title track for impact.
But ultimately, it’s artificial and dated sounds that dominate the somewhat bloated Dangerous, unlike the much more refined and authentic funk/disco-oriented grooves of Off the Wall and Thriller. If there’s one definite inclining trend through Jackson’s discography it’s the scale of production, increasingly evident through Bad to this album. When Dangerous does scale back its production though, it’s at its strongest (“Heal the World” and “Will You Be There” in particular) but sadly there’s too much new jack swing, not enough Jackson – often in this album, his singing presence is overpowered by the beat (which I suspect is the fault of bad mixing), which proves to be bizarre and dissatisfying especially if you approach a Michael Jackson album expecting… Michael Jackson. But what can’t be denied is the album’s passion, whether it’s the defiance of “Jam”, the sensuality of “In the Closet” or the conviction of “Black or White”, Dangerous is Michael Jackson letting loose, unbridled and enjoying rare moments of sanctuary from the limelight and a frantically obsessed media, proving to be a listening experience that is undoubtedly flawed, yet still unique and raw.