Happy 25th Anniversary to Michael Jackson’s eighth studio album Dangerous, originally released November 26, 1991.
“But they told me / A man should be faithful / And walk when not able / And fight ‘til the end, but I’m only human…” – Michael Jackson (“Will You Be There”)
Following Michael Jackson’s rigorous Bad World Tour (123 shows spanning from September 1987 to January 1989), he returned to a musical landscape that had evolved. The newly emerging sounds of hip-hop, grunge rock, and new jack swing captivated the nation’s attention with Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Nirvana, and his sister Janet Jackson as the torchbearers. They had a more natural appeal to younger people and brought new levels of complexity and politics to their respective genres. With a keen desire to top himself and stay current, Jackson’s follow-up record had to exceed his towering achievements of the 1980s and capture the zeitgeist of America circa 1991.
Operating for the first time without Quincy Jones (the acclaimed co-producer of Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad), many wondered if the pair had a falling out. Contrary to popular belief, Jackson and Jones mutually ended their decade-long partnership. “Michael was not angry with Quincy,” longtime collaborator Brad Buxer recalled in a 2009 interview with the French magazine Black & White. “He has always had an admiration for him and an immense respect. Michael was always very independent, and he also wanted to show that his success was not because of one man, namely Quincy.” After signing a lucrative $65 million deal with Sony Music, Jackson assembled his team of collaborators: Bill Bottrell (a songwriter/producer who had worked with him since 1985), Bruce Swedien and Matt Forger (engineers from Thriller and Bad), and Brad Buxer (a musician/arranger who previously teamed up with Stevie Wonder).
Just as they were picking up momentum creatively, a distraction arose in Sony’s plan to release a greatest hits package entitled Decade. Sony wanted to bundle the new songs (“Monkey Business,” “Who Is It,” “Earth Song,” “Black or White,” “Dangerous”) with many of Jackson’s previous classics, in time for Christmas. However, Jackson didn’t want to coast on the success of his back catalog, which frustrated record execs as he continually tweaked the new material and missed four deadlines. With Decade at a standstill, Janet led pop into new territory with Rhythm Nation 1814, a masterful fusion of R&B, funk, and rock music. The social and political undertones of “Rhythm Nation” inspired an influx of new music from Michael’s camp so pronounced that Sony decided to shelve Decade and offer their star a clean slate for Dangerous.
Riding the continued wave of inspiration, Jackson brought notable R&B heavyweights Babyface, L.A. Reid, and Bryan Loren onboard. Although their output was top-notch, Jackson wasn’t completely satisfied with the uptempo grooves. Ever since the release of Thriller, a significant number of his fans were teenage Caucasian-American women from the mainstream pop realm. In hopes of reconnecting with his dwindling African-American fan base, Jackson drafted in new jack swing pioneer Teddy Riley to whip up some urban bangers. With his innovative blend of Motown soul, James Brown funk, and Stevie Wonder studio wizardry, Riley immediately gelled with Jackson, cranking out a bevy of unique R&B/pop numbers: “Serious Effect,” featuring hip-hop icon LL Cool J, “Someone Put Your Hand Out,” which appeared on his 2004 compilation The Ultimate Collection, and “Blood on the Dance Floor,” among others.
“When the deadline came, he wanted to do more and more songs,” Riley told Rolling Stone in 1992. “And his manager [Sandy Gallin] came and said ‘Teddy, you and Michael, you’re not up to your sneaky stuff. Do not write another song.’” Acting for the first time as an executive producer with a revamped team of collaborators, Jackson was ready to engage the world—around and inside of him—the best way he knew how: through music, dance, and film.
As with pretty much everything Jackson did, the album artwork (illustrated by pop surrealist Mark Ryden) blew minds wide open. Jackson’s piercing gaze oversees a circus-inspired foreground with an off-kilter collection of animals, celebrities, and other real-world objects. Ryden later revealed that inspiration came from Michael’s 1989 short film Leave Me Alone, but refused to explain its hidden meanings. “I feel that if a painting is explained away, something’s lost for the viewer,” he answered. “I’m more interested in how other people interpret the image themselves.”
On album opener “Jam,” Michael explains that jamming (the joy of music and dance) is his preferred method of temporarily escaping worldly issues. “You can’t hurt me; I found peace within myself,” Jackson proclaims. “Go with it, go with it / Jam!” Riley pilots this sense of freedom with an adrenaline-pumping rhythm consisting of electronic drum snares, turntable scratches, and hot horn stabs. The iconic short film co-stars NBA legend Michael Jordan, rap duo Kris Kross, and the late-great Heavy D.
Over a slinky funk/rock beat, “Why You Wanna Trip on Me” spews venom at the media’s negligence in addressing critical issues like police brutality, drug abuse, and world hunger. Jackson’s plea for affirmative action is as relevant today as it was back in 1991. “Heal the World” is a beautifully understated anthem whose lyrics call for universal improvement. Buxer remembers joining one of the early studio sessions and clicking with Jackson straight away. “A current immediately passed between us. Musically speaking, we were on the same wavelength; we spoke the same language.” The song reached #2 on Billboard’s UK Singles chart and launched a charitable foundation of the same name to help disadvantaged children.
The #1 smash “Black or White” merges classic rock with soulful crooning in a call for racial unity. “I took my baby on a Saturday bang,” Jackson sings. “Boy is that girl with you / Yes we’re one and the same.” The blockbuster single topped the charts in over 20 countries (making him the first artist to have #1 hits in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s).
The revolutionary short film marked the return of “Thriller” director John Landis, actors Macaulay Culkin and George Wendt appear onscreen together, and roughly 500 million viewers from 27 countries tuned in for the premiere. While many enjoyed the gorgeous imagery and innovative special effects, some complained about the controversial “Panther Dance” scene. Jackson intended to channel the panther’s animalistic nature through dance moves, but due to public backlash, he reluctantly cut the entire section out. The violence and vandalism are easier to understand in the uncensored cut with Jackson smashing windows that depicted racial graffiti slurs.
The emotive ballad “Gone Too Soon,” penned by Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan, was dedicated to the memory of AIDS victim Ryan White, who contracted the virus from a contaminated blood donation. Jackson’s falsetto floats over the warm arrangement of electric piano chords and elegant strings (“Born to amuse, to inspire, to delight / Here one day / Gone one night”). Critics initially bashed “Gone Too Soon” for being melodramatic, but it suddenly had new meaning when Usher tearfully performed the song at Jackson’s memorial in 2009.
Dangerous ascends skyward with the gospel fervor of “Will You Be There” and “Keep the Faith,” buoyed by the majestic Andraé Crouch Choir. The former is a symphonic, heart-wrenching confession in which the shackles of Jackson’s deepest insecurities snap and crash to the floor. “But they told me / A man should be faithful / And walk when not able / And fight ‘til the end, but I’m only human.” The latter reunites the team that created Bad’s “Man in the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard minus Quincy Jones) and concentrates on maintaining a sense of hope through the challenges that life throws at you. During a late-night recording, Swedien remembers Jackson leaving abruptly and “crying his eyes out” because he wasn’t singing in the right key. Swedien calmed him down and said, “We’re not going home until you’ve sung this all the way through.” They completed the song at dawn, and the finished product is as close to a gospel sermon as you’ll ever hear MJ on record.
The rest of Dangerous unspools into a more radical take on romance. The hormone-soaked dance track “In the Closet” was intended to be a duet with Madonna. However, the pop icons jointly went their separate ways due to a songwriting conflict. Fortunately, the song peaked at #6 on the Billboard charts and has aged gracefully. “She Drives Me Wild” examines a sassy love interest that’s “got a mojo in her pocket” and “got it ready just in case” over a groove that utilizes a grab-bag of traffic clatter and Stevie Wonder-esque synthesizers. The warmth and nostalgia of “Remember the Time” harkens back to Jackson’s Motown roots with a dazzling, John Singleton-directed short film that’s Pitchfork Jeff Weiss describes as “a New Jack Swing hybrid of Cleopatra and Indiana Jones.”
Some listeners may view “Can’t Let Her Get Away” as a musical homage to one of his childhood idols, James Brown. However, Jackson’s pen game steals the show here. Buried underneath the machine-gun-like percussion, squawking horns, and assorted beatboxing is a great life lesson: appreciating what you have while you have it. “If I let her get away / Then the world will have to see,” Michael croons in the second verse. “A fool who lives alone / And the fool who set you free.” This is a monster groove that Chuck Eddy of The Village Voice says “has as much disco momentum as anything Jackson’s waxed since Off the Wall.”
The remaining songs expose the bleaker side of relationships. The haunting masterpiece “Who Is It” finds Jackson teeming with rage and regret when his lover leaves him unexpectedly. “And she promised me forever that we’d live our life as one / We made our vows we’d live a love so true,” he ponders. “It seems that she has left me for such reasons unexplained / I need to find the truth, but see what will I do?” The song became another Billboard hit after Michael’s impromptu beatboxing during his 1993 live interview with Oprah Winfrey. Directed by a young David Fincher (Seven, The Social Network, Gone Girl), the short film portrays a distressed Jackson who discovers that his girlfriend is a high-class call girl.
The slow-burn rocker “Give In to Me” expands upon the premise of betrayal in the previous track, painting a nightmarish picture with its lyrics. “You always knew just how to make me cry / And never did I ask you questions why / It seems you get your kicks from hurting me,” Jackson howls. “Don’t try to understand me / Because your words just aren’t enough.” Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash brings the soul-baring nature of the song to life with his Les Paul guitar. “I got off the plane [from Africa] and drove to the studio,” Slash remembers. “I basically went in and started to play it—that was it. It was really spontaneous in that way.” Just another example of Jackson’s ability to borrow elements from grunge rock (a style unheard in his previous work), and give it heart.
Rounding out the album is the menacing title track, a tale of seduction and deception pulled right from Proverbs 5:3-4. “And then it happened, she touched me / For the lips of a strange woman drop as a honeycomb,” Jackson narrates in a near-whisper. “And her mouth was smoother than oil, but her inner spirit and words were as sharp as a two-edged sword / But I loved it ‘cause it’s dangerous.” Riley develops a mechanical, new jack beat (perhaps the heaviest of the collection) without sacrificing the gritty textures of Bottrell’s original work.
In February 1994, songwriter Crystal Cartier accused Jackson of stealing elements of her 1985 song. During his deposition, Jackson details how “Dangerous” evolved from the Bad-era outtake “Streetwalker” and ultimately won the case since Cartier was unable to supply any original tapes as concrete evidence. Although it wasn’t chosen as a single, the live performances of “Dangerous” solidified Michael’s reputation as Earth’s greatest dancer. As for the studio track itself, it stands as a grave warning against sexual sin, pointing out its surface appeal and hidden destruction.
As we celebrate its quarter-century anniversary, listeners should know that Michael Jackson’s eighth solo album is a 14-track, 77-minute voyage that elevates his creativity to new heights. Commercially, Dangerous shipped 32 million units globally, yielded nine singles (four of which reached the Billboard Top 10), and its music videos—epic short films that were star-studded, big-budget, and headline-grabbing—redefined the art form.
Riley and Bottrell offer a synthesis of beats that are consistently crisp and fresh, drawing influences from hip-hop, rock, gospel, and orchestral pop. Michael’s lyrics are politically potent and emotionally honest, revealing a charismatic and tormented superstar at the peak of his powers. From societal injustices (“Jam,” “Black or White”) and pained vulnerability (“Who Is It,” “Give In to Me”) to intimate relationships (“In the Closet,” “Remember the Time”) and dependency on God (“Will You Be There,” “Keep the Faith”), Jackson challenges the public perception of his “perfect” life and pop-star privilege.
Okay, there are a couple of chinks in the armor. Six of the seven Teddy Riley songs are front-loaded; spreading them out evenly would have given the record enough time to breathe. The radio edits for “Heal the World,” “Black or White,” and “Will You Be There” are superior to their lengthier album counterparts. Minor nitpicks aside, Dangerous is an immaculate jewel in The King of Pop’s metaphorical crown.