One of the things that characterized this album in my personal family was that it was the first Michael Jackson album during his Quincy Jones era my family never had in the house growing up. One reason was a financial sacrifice of raising a child,and not buying much music. Somehow or other? I didn’t hear all that many of these songs first time around. No MTV in the house,wasn’t as focused on radio at this particular time due to the burgeoning matters of school and other things. It wasn’t until one beautiful summer day of 1994 did I purchase this album on a cassette tape and listened to it with my mom on the way back to our lakeside summer camp. It was already eight years old,and it was like hearing something almost totally new. A sad irony,that I’d become so disconnected with Michael Jackson’s music during the late 80’s and very early 90’s. Flash forward 18 years later. My friend and now blogging partner Henrique and I were talking about this album from a musicians perspective-basically on the level of MJ in the late 80’s becoming more focused on his performance than instrumental quality control. Shortly after that,Spike Lee produced a TV documentary about this album for its 25th anniversary. It really helped to put Mike’s creativity into a more musical and less of a performance perspective. It was accompanied shortly after by this special edition album-containing unreleased songs from the sessions. I greeted it with great enthusiasm. It would give me a chance to give a fresh new perspective on the album itself and even beyond. And that is what I am about to do right now.
The title song itself,intended as a duet with Prince,has a very strong Minneapolis flavor about it with the stripped down rhythm,tight lead guitar and an excellent cameo organ solo from jazz icon Jimmy Smith. Of course it has plenty of MJ’s own trademarks such as atmospheric synthesizers and JB-like horn accents. “The Way You Make Me Feel” is a hyper melodic,James Brown like funky shuffle-again updated with heavy synthesizer accents and Mike’s multi tracked vocals. In the end he really does sound like what Henrique would refer to as an OG-singing “ain’t nobody’s bidness but me and my baby”. In recent years “Speed Demon” has come to be one of my favorite numbers here. Its an example of Mike’s beat boxing being presented as part of the songs percussion track. It’s slow,funky nastiness is beset by some strong breaks and a bluesy guitar solo on the bridge. This segues into the sensuous mix of jazzy soul/pop and Afro-Latin melodic accents that is “Liberian Girl”. Not only does it find Mike celebrating Afrocentric feminine beauty,but also using the revolutionary based African nation of Liberia as it’s point of reference. “Just Good Friends” is an uptempo synth funk number that melodically has a pop-jazz fusion flavor. It’s in fact not instrumentally dissimilar to the European group Mezzoforte’s “Check It In” from 1985. Of course it’s far harder edged-including Stevie Wonder and Mike duetting with their rapid fire leads.
“Another Part Of Me” is one of the most musically powerful songs on the album-built on a powerful bass/guitar line with some celebratory horns and jazzy keyboard flavors. “Man In The Mirror” was one of the few songs I knew well from this album. A modern gospel song with a vital (if sometimes sadly misrepresented lyric these days-IT DOES NOT condone moral selfishness) has apparently come into question by some musicians as being musically weak for its lofty message. But I still enjoy it for the radio friendly,secularized pop gospel with the Andre Crouch Singers that it is. “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” is a melodically challenging love ballad,originally intended to feature Whitney Houston but instead with Sieddah Garrett. The only song I was never crazy about was the faux live sounding arena rock of “Dirty Diana”-with its paranoid rock groupie lyrics. “Smooth Criminal” is indeed a smooth,bass synth/horn based funk number. “Leave Me Alone” is a heavily orchestrated synth funk number-again with a JB style shuffle funk sound at the base of it. One thing about the bonus material I noticed was a pronounced Brazilian flavor about it. “Don’t Stop Messin ‘Round” is a raw,grooving bossa type number with a romantic Spanish type melody while “I’m So Blue” and “Free”-both mid tempo love songs also have strong Latin pop flavors as well. “Abortion Papers” is a electronically thick,hard new wave dance type number with…Mike singing a very pro life lyric? It is very well recorded and played on though. “Price Of Fame” is one of Mike’s more reflective numbers speaking of his deteriorating reputation as an eccentric-referencing his father on this funky ska type piece.
“Al Capone”,apparently an earlier version of “Smooth Criminal”-actually in terms of tempo and the brightness of some of the keyboard parts actually a bit closer to “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. Though I knew about these two songs already,”Streetwalker” has an instrumental similarity to “Billie Jean”-only with a synth bass-line and horns while “Fly Away” is another bossa jazz type number that’s so melodically beautiful I fail to see why it didn’t make the final cut of the original album. We get the Spanish and French re-recordings of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”. The last three tracks could’ve easily spoiled this edition of the album. The two remixes of “Bad” and “Speed Demon” are basically light EDM/dubstep remixes featuring the original vocals and some musical accents. Musically they add absolutely nothing to the album itself or any of the unreleased material-save in showcase how MJ’s music can theoretically be re-purposed for many (sometimes passing) musical trends. As for how the original album heard with the unreleased music holds up? I really feel Michael Jackson really did succeed in making a sonically headier,and often very funky album. Of course,one thing in retrospect that even I can hear is that at the very least,this was only just contemporary for its day. Being musically “new” in 1987 would’ve meant embracing either the house-type sound of the new jack swing pioneered by Teddy Riley or Chuckii Booker. Most of this production sounds like a mildly updated Thriller. It would’ve been excellent if it came out for 1984-85. And in a way,maybe that was a good thing for Mike-as at the time he might’ve agreed with Quincy he needed to follow his musical vision rather than following someone else’s musical lead. Overall a very good way to hear what has now become a classic album.
Originally written on August 30th,2014