By Scott T. Sterling
In 1991, the cultural waters were shifting; the highly produced pop and slick hair metal that dominated the ’80s were slowly losing favor, being replaced by edgier hip-hop and alternative rock music. It was in this landscape that Michael Jackson followed a trifecta of classic albums, ‘Off the Wall,’ ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ with ‘Dangerous.’
Michael Jackson, meet Kurt Cobain.
It’s safe to say that an upstart Seattle rock band preparing its major label debut was the last thing on Michael Jackson’s mind while he was meticulously crafting on what would become one of the best-selling albums of his career (and all time) Dangerous (it has sold over 30 million copies). Following up 1979’s Off the Wall, 1982’s Thriller and 1987’s Bad couldn’t have been easy, and even if Dangerous didn’t match the sales or the cultural impact of those albums, it still contained a handful of smash hits and unforgettable songs, even as the world was turning from Jackson’s high-sheen pop music.
Jackson’s eighth studio album is inextricably linked to Nirvana’s groundbreaking Nevermind, which as the distinction of officially knocking Dangerous from the top of Billboard Top 200 chart after a four-week run.
(Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind had outsold Dangerous the previous week, but it happened on a week when the then-biweekly Billboard didn’t publish).
It was the opening salvo of a paradigm shift away from the monolithic superstar pop that marked much of the 1980s and towards the introspective and angst-ridden grunge sound that would dominate the early ‘90s.
With Dangerous, Jackson made the most of that moment, eschewing his comfort zone of working with Quincy Jones to incorporate the prevailing R&B sound of the era by employing the production services of New Jack Swing pioneer Teddy Riley and a host of other songwriters and producers.
The move resulted in the most panoramic full-length of Jackson’s career, from his signature dance floor R&B to maudlin ballads and even hard rock.
Dangerous would produce no less than four top 10 singles, starting with the chart topping “Black or White.” The song’s theme of unity is an apt representation of the album as a whole, which worked to find a balance between the disparate worlds of pop, R&B and rock (the track opens with a skit featuring a riff from Guns ‘N Roses guitar legend, Slash).
The album’s opening six tracks rush by in a dazzling blur of syncopated dance beats and top-shelf song craft. “Jam,” “Why You Wanna Trip on Me,” “In the Closet,” “She Drives Me Wild” — Dangerous blasts out of the gate like a greatest hits revue, packed with infectious melodies and high-impact production values.
The high point of this opening hit parade is “Remember the Time,” which pairs an easy, swinging beat with one of Jackson’s most dynamic vocal performances on the album.
The dance party comes to an abrupt halt with “Heal the World,” a syrupy ballad that plays like a companion piece with USA for Africa’s massive charity single, “We Are the World,” that Jackson penned with Lionel Richie in 1985.
“Who Is It” slow-burns with echoes of “Billie Jean” in its grooves, followed by one of the album’s most interesting tracks, “Give In to Me,” which sounds like Jackson’s take on peak Def Leppard power balladry. The track’s arena-rock vibe is completed with more guitar histrionics from Slash.
The back end of Dangerous takes a decidedly somber tone, with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus providing appropriate gravitas to Jackson’s vulnerable cry for support, “Will You Be There,” which ends with the singer audibly choking up during its final verse. The song’s chart performance (it peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100, spending six weeks in the top 10) was bolstered as the main theme song of the hit movie, Free Willy.
Following a heartfelt rendition of Dionne Warwick’s “Gone too Soon” (a dedication to Ryan White, an Indiana teen who was blocked from returning to his school following an AIDS diagnosis), Dangerous closes on the snappy high-energy R&B of the title track, a throwback to the album’s opening barrage of beats that takes listeners for one final spin on the dance floor before Nirvana, Soundgarden and the incoming grunge brigade enticed American youth culture into the dark heart of Generation X.