Michael Jackson's 'Dangerous' Is 25 Years Old, but the World It Saw Looks Like the Present
With its blend of funk, social themes, and unapologetic blackness, 'Dangerous' said as much about its star as it did society.
"Who's bad?" is the enduring rhetorical question from Michael Jackson's 1987 hit album, Bad. This same point of inquiry can be used to describe the man who would later release the Dangerous album, showing beyond a shadow of any doubt, that he was still the baddest entertainer on the block. When the Dangerous album was released, Michael Jackson's popularity was on par with apple pie and American football, both American staples. This month will mark the 25th anniversary since its release and damn, has it aged well. 25 is that age when you start panicking and realize that you need to start creating some semblance of order around your life and stop acting like it's just a 24-hour after school special. But for Dangerous, 25 is the year that has indelibly marked it as a perfectly apt time capsule which introduced the world to Teddy Riley's new jack-swing. It signified Jackson's most fervent embrace of hip-hop and rap, and it was a departure from the solely sweet love jams of early-20s MJ as he now sang about lust and shattered hearts. At 33, and at the peak of his career, this would ultimately become one of the greatest, introspective albums of all time.
For most artists, the autobiographical nature of their music starts with the first note on the first track, but for Dangerous, Jackson literally wore his heart on the album sleeve. Using different shades of blue as the backdrop–royal blue, sapphire, and turquoise–Jackson showed us the layers of his sadness, with his eyes piercing through what looks to be a gilded gold mask and one lock of curly dark hair falling over his forehead. The face of a monkey (probably his monkey Bubbles), wearing a crown sits atop the mask. A dog and a bird in royal regalia are sitting on thrones either side of the album cover. We see a black winding road, find its way into this twisted fantasy that resembles a circus poster, and P. T." Barnum, creator of one of the world's best circuses (Barnum and Bailey circus) is standing guard at the entrance of the Dangerous circus carnival.
His eyes projected his essence and the art showcased the myriad of things revolving around a personal life that was increasingly turning into a media amusement park, with rides he didn't want to go on and fun he was being forced to create. Around the time of the album release, the media was slowly carving a parasitic narrative around Jackson, aided by rumours of skin bleaching, allegedly buying the bones of the elephant man and sleeping in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. All this would see Jackson's persona morphed into becoming "Wacko Jacko," a name he would despise for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, it's the music that allowed him to assert his eccentricity in a safe space, reclaiming his weird and simultaneously mocking those who saw that as his only defining feature.
His hushed tones on "Keep it in the Closet " and the desperate urgency as he battled infidelity on "Who is it? " are quiet but necessary highlights that show Jackson's vocal prowess, capable of alluding to any emotion while flexing his upper and lower register intonations. "Can't Let Her Get Away," "She Drives Me Wild" and the album's namesake, "Dangerous" offered us a menage a trois feat. Jackson in love. He was obsessive and uninhibited while also cautious and wary. Jackson the lover is probably the one we can most relate to as he sang about experiences we all inherently understand. The King, after all, was only human.
One of the audio and visual highlights of the album is "Jam." The video featured the meeting of the MJs, the other being Jordan, in their prime, the two greats of their respective crafts meeting in an abandoned, dark warehouse to teach each other the skills of their profession. The song is explosive and chant-like, propelled by funky dance tunes, some nasty trumpet horn samples and a fleeting but strong scratch effect. B-boys and B-girls are a consistent thread throughout the video paying homage to the African-American and Puerto-Rican youth that created this style of street dance, which was then perfected and tuned to fit the moves of the King of Pop. Heavy D comes through sounding like an inspirational coach delivering a mini verse of encouragement at half-time and sending you back in the game invigorated and inspired. With appearances by Kriss Kross and Naughty by Nature this was Jackson's most visible attempt at crossing over to the hip-hop and rap genres that were now playing centre of 90s music. The timeless appeal of "Jam" is courtesy of Jackson's smooth transition into a musical genre that many were calling a fluke but which he saw as a potential vehicle to reach a wider audience. At the same time being cautious not to veer too far from the 70s and 80s melodies his fans loved him for. "Jam" felt like Michael with the trademark vocal hiccups, well placed "uh-huh"s and aggressive whispers softened by his natural boyishness. But it also sounded like the future.
Decades later, with America on the brink of the age of Trump and a terrifying wave-like resurgence of white nationalism spewing racist vitriol, "Black or White" still feels like an anthemic, hope-filled war cry. Belting out, "Don't tell me you agree with me, when I saw you kicking dirt in my eye," with that signature falsetto, now layered with anger and dissension, Jackson's words feel doubly relevant in light of those who lament racism and claim to denounce misogyny. As KKK Leader David Duke praised Trump's victory as a win for America and well known white supremacist Steve Bannon became the new Chief Strategist for the President-Elect, "I ain't scared of no sheets" is an unmistakable, one-line lyrical 'fuck you' to the terrorists in white robes who lack the courage to give their bigotry a face and yet boldly rode around, burning churches and inciting violence. Jackson was singing about an America in which people of colour could be tried and found guilty for unjust reasons. He was attempting racial unity by singing of a love that was pure irrespective of race, and also cognizant of the flaws in a society that desperately needed to be healed. Shape-shifting into a black panther at the near end of the video took Jackson from family friendly CBS viewing to FOX pundits dartboard for fostering "divisiveness" and publicly showing support for a black political group labelled fascist and a threat to White American civil liberties.
Dangerous was released almost six months after the savage beating of Rodney King was captured on video, and seven months after 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was shot in the back of the head by a South Korean store owner in Los Angeles. With racial tensions at an all time high, Jackson used the strongest weapon in his arsenal to create a lasting reminder of his desire for a utopia unhindered by race. It is in this context that "Heal The World" resonates most fully, imploring world citizens to care about the wellbeing of others as a testament to their own humanity. And with the world seemingly tearing itself from the inside, "Why You Wanna Trip On Me" had him asking why the media was still intent on making discussions regarding his personal life the focal point for the 9 o'clock news.
We have got so much corruption
We have got streetwalkers
Walking into darkness
What are we doing
To try to stop this?
Why you wanna trip on me?
The lines also poignantly examined the insidious ability of the media to highlight the mundane and unimportant while simultaneously bypassing the real issues.
Although a devout Jehovah's Witness, Jackson rarely infused gospel notes into his melodies but with the help of the Andrae Crouch singers he was able to craft the melodious "Keep the Faith." On par with "Swing Low" for its hymn-like qualities, choral presence and crescendo effects, "Keep the Faith" is cushioned between inspirational tearjerkers "Will You Be There" and "Gone Too Soon." This trio makes up the last several minutes of the album and together they carved the trinity that showed Jackson the believer, Jackson the wounded soul and Jackson the constant mourner. He was still moonwalking his way to the pinnacle of musical greatness, but those slick steps were now laced with a heavier heart and a deeper understanding of the ways hypervisibility can break you, all while attempting to keep you together.
A feel good hit, with one of the most physically complicated dance routines ever choreographed, and probably the most well-loved track from the album is "Remember the Time." You bring together one of the world's best supermodels, Iman, comedy rockstar Eddie Murphy, South Central LA hip-hop fixtures The Pharcyde and NBA heavyweights Magic Johnson alongside Tommy "Tiny" Lister for a music video and what do you get? Unapologetic Blackness, eons before that became the ubiquitous noun used by mainstream media outlets to label anything featuring a majority black cast. In 1992 an all black anything outside of Harlem or pre-gentrified Brooklyn was a rarity, but on February 2nd, it was a blackout on MTV, FOX and BET as the music video premiered. Not only was the backdrop ancient Egypt, which for years historians have tried to whitewash and erase the blackness of its earlier inhabitants, but here were black bodies dancing, laughing, living, and loving. Carefree.
Jackson gave an interview after the release of Dangerous and he said his goal had been to create something with as much of a cultural significance as Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker Suite.' "In a thousand years from now, people would still be listening to it. Something that would live forever." After the phenomenal success of Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, reaching that same level of excellence was never going to be an easy feat, but Jackson successfully gave us something that was true to his musical beginnings and also an ode to the future. Singers and producers such as The Neptunes, FKA twigs, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar have spoken about how Jackson's emotional scope on his songs, his embrace of all genres and his political undertones inspired their own journeys. Dangerous encompasses the different facets of Jackson's artistry and it contains all the nuances of the man who wanted to be the greatest performer the world had ever seen and also be left alone. The one who wanted world peace but didn't have peace of mind. At the height of his fame, bearing the skin of those treated like trespassing visitors and yet loved by those who called him King, Jackson gave all of what he possibly could to create this lasting beautiful contradiction.
Happy Anniversary, Dangerous. 25 looks real good on you.
Tari Ngangura is a writer from Toronto. She's on Twitter.