The booklet for Dangerous begins with a short prose poem by Michael Jackson describing the release the singer feels while dancing: “Creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy” until “there is only … the dance.” It is Jackson’s version of William Butler Yeats’s “How can you tell the dancer from the dance?” and a revealing introduction to the first album in four years from this generation’s best-known and bestselling superstar.
Dangerous might seem to be a chance to separate this dancer — the “eccentric” Michael of the chimps, the Elephant Man bones, the hyperbaric chamber — from his dancing and singing, which remain among the wonders of the performance world and, lest we forget, were the real reason we paid so much attention to Jackson in the first place. According to this plan, we must consider Dangerous on its own terms and listen without images of llamas and Macaulay Culkin dancing in our heads.
But of course this polarity between Jackson’s on- and offstage lives is exactly what makes him so fascinating, and the triumph of Dangerous is that it doesn’t hide from the fears and contradictions of a lifetime spent under a spotlight. This edge of terror electrified Thriller‘s Jackson-penned break-through cuts “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” but was diverted into an unconvincing nastiness in 1987 on Bad. It also drove the “controversial” segment of the “Black or White” video, but this tension is presented much more effectively on the album itself.
Teddy Riley replaces. Quincy Jones as Jackson’s primary collaborator on Dangerous, an inspired selection that is the key to the album’s finest moments. Riley — the producer of groundbreaking tracks by Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat and his own combo, Guy — is the godfather of New Jack Swing, which merges hip-hop beats with soul crooning and has dominated the R&B charts in recent years. This choice clearly represents Jackson’s pursuit of a more contemporary sound, an attempt to come to grips with the changes that have swept pop music since Bad — most significantly, rap’s successful attack on the mainstream. Riley’s work on Dangerous is reminiscent of Jackson’s solo album Off the Wall (1979) and that record’s distillation of disco to its perfect pop essence. Riley’s tracks don’t offer the revolutionary genre-busting of Thriller, but they dramatically illustrate the versatility of his style. Instead of the cocksure strut of a New Jack classic like Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative,” the stacked layers of keyboards on Dangerous shift and percolate, varying textures over insistent, thumping rhythm tracks.
The aggressive yet fluid dance grooves Riley helped construct — and his emphasis is on writing grooves, not traditional songs — prove a perfect match for Jackson’s clipped, breathy uptempo voice. The fit is especially striking on the songs dealing with women. Exactly half of Dangerous is concerned with affairs of the heart, and Jackson’s greatest fears are brought right up front — there’s not a single straightforward love song in the bunch. Instead we get betrayal in “Who Is It” and repressed lust in the titillatingly titled (and determinedly heterosexual) “In the Closet.” Even “Remember the Time,” the most lighthearted musical track on the album, tells of a blissful romance only to ask, “So why did it end?” The tense, stuttering beats mirror these anxieties compellingly Riley’s melodies may seem secondary, but he carefully plants unshakable hooks in the least likely places — a jittery rhythm track in “Can’t Let Her Get Away,” a snaky, unexpected bridge in “In the Closet.”
There’s nothing on Dangerous as anti-female as Bad‘s “Dirty Diana,” but Jackson’s persona is much more assertively sexual than the accused victim in “Billie Jean.” He stalks and preens in “She Drives Me Wild.” “Give In to Me” flirts with something more disturbing as Jackson sings, “Don’t try to understand me/Just simply do the things I say” in a grittier, throaty voice while Slash’s guitar whips and soars behind him. Neither this slow-burn solo nor the Stones-derived riff on “Black or White” offers the catharsis of Eddie Van Halen’s blazing break on “Beat It,” but they demonstrate that what seemed like a stunning crossover fusion in 1982 has now become an established part of the pop vocabulary.
Less impressive are the ballads on Dangerous, where Jackson turns to more global concerns. He has always had a weakness for sappiness, and over the years his delivery has grown increasingly constricted on slower numbers. “Heal the World” is a Hallmark-card knockoff of “We Are the World,” while the grandiose “Will You Be There” never catches fire. “Keep the Faith,” with its power-of-positive-thinking message, is looser and sets off fireworks with a call-and-response gospel coda. It’s easy to overlook, though, because it immediately follows “Will You Be There,” and both tracks feature the Andrae Crouch Singers; the sequencing of Dangerous often clusters similar songs in bunches when a more varied presentation would have been stronger.
“Jam,” the album’s opener, addresses. Jackson’s uneasy relationship to the world and reveals a canny self-awareness that carries the strongest message on Dangerous. “Jam” features a dense, swirling Riley track, propelled by horn samples and a subtle scratch effect, and includes a fleet rap by Riley favorite Heavy D. Though it initially sounds like a simple, funky dance vehicle, Jackson’s voice bites into each phrase with a desperation that urges us to look deeper. He is singing as “false prophets cry of doom” and exhorts us to “live each day like it’s the last.” The chorus declares that the miseries of the world “ain’t too much stuff” to stop us from jamming. To Jackson, who insists that he comes truly alive only onstage, the ability to “Jam” is the sole means to find “peace within myself,” and this hope rings more sincere than the childlike wishes found in the ballads.
At such moments, Dangerous rises to the impossible challenge set by Thriller, the commercial and artistic juggernaut that will always loom over Michael Jackson’s work. At his best, then and now, the dancer and the dance come together and reveal a man, no longer a man-child, confronting his well-publicized demons and achieving transcendence through performance. What got lost in the uproar over That Video is that, despite his offstage Peter Pan image, Michael Jackson’s finest song and dance is always sexually charged, tense, coiled — he is at his most gripping when he really is dangerous.