As a 10-year-old, Michael Jackson mimicked adult emotions, like most child performers. As a teenager, he was able to reach places most mature singers can’t touch. Jackson’s first four solo albums — released from 1972 to 1975, between his 13th and 17th birthdays — document his transition from boy wonder to precocious teen.
This triple-disc anthology shows that Motown didn’t always know what to do with a kid who could wail like James Brown but competed for fans with Donny Osmond. Jackson’s early solo records spanned Fifties rock & roll (his smash remake of “Rockin’ Robin”) and funk (the protodisco “Dapper-Dan”) but favored campy puppy-love ballads. Liberace-esque piano flourishes make Jackson’s cover of “Too Young” even tackier than Osmond’s.
But the best songs are anything but cute: Jackson summoned pains beyond the realm of adolescent experience on his aching cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The rage he brought to sophisticated soul melodramas like “What Goes Around Comes Around” foreshadows the moral ambiguities of “Billie Jean.” And no other vocalist could’ve turned a celebration of a pet rat into a chart-topping declaration of love between outcasts: Thirty-seven years after its release, Jackson’s first Number One solo hit, “Ben,” remains eerie and extraordinary.