Dean Van Nguyen brought new jack swing to New Jack City.
I. Half The World Away
I was in my second year of college when I noticed there was something wrong with my skin. Sitting in the middle of a drafty boxing arena that doubled as an exam hall, I fidgeted with the pen and stared at the cold, wooden desk, thinking about the euphoria to come from all that crammed information being promptly exorcised from my body. That, I thought to myself, would feel pretty great.
With my gaze fixated on the table, the sunlight illuminated my hands in a way I’d not previously noticed. I looked closer. Dense white patches had punctuated my usually fawn skin. How had I never noticed this before? An uneven tan, maybe? A freak trick of the light? It was a couple more years before I accepted I had Vitiligo, an incurable skin affliction that most famously robbed Michael Jackson of his skin tone, leaving him with a ghostly, almost transparent, pale complexion. Over a decade later, with the melanin in my body slowly draining away like sand through an hourglass, I use make-up to hide the affects, knowing the day may come when more than 50 percent of my body is affected and, like Jackson, I’ll have to decide whether to “bleach” what’s left.
Three years before that discovery and half the world away from that drafty Dublin arena, Jackson, the King of Pop, greeted his subjects at the MTV Video Music Awards 2001 from behind a giant Etch a Sketch. In its extreme pageantry, it was a royal entry worthy of historical monarchs. NSYNC played the court jesters, performing their Jacko-jacking single “Pop” before His Majesty emerged into the chaos and disorder.
On a set that looked like it was constructed from left over Happy Meal boxes, MJ popped, locked and spun awkwardly. He looked uncomfortable. He missed his final cue, and he didn’t sing. This was the inverse of Motown 25—the 1983 TV special and night of his coronation, when a 24-year-old Jackson performed “Billie Jean,” moonwalked on air and set a near-impossible standard for every entertainer since. The crowned head of contemporary pop looked completely washed. Like he was ready to permanently abdicate the throne of thorns.
Jackson hadn’t just rolled off the couch. The September 6th appearance came a couple weeks after the release of “You Rock My World,” the first single from what would turn out to be his final studio record Invincible (which turned 15 last Sunday). At the peak of his powers, Jackson put the album cycle above everything. Every single was meticulously planned, each video treated like another brick in his indestructible legacy. He knew, deep down, that the thousands of unsolicited paparazzi snaps, stories of oxygen chambers and inflated cosmetic surgery reports that filled tabloid pages would one day be pulped up and discarded into landfills. But his body of work, that would live forever.
On “You Rock My World,” Jackson ferments the chapters of pop history he himself wrote. The disco strings sound salvaged from the Off The Wall sessions. The smooth contemporary pop flavor invokes Thriller. The cinematic video follows the “short film” ethos he had long trailblazed and squeezes dry some of his most familiar tropes. In essence, “You Rock My World” does what Jackson spent a lot of his latter-day work doing: chasing his own ghost.
Picture Chris Tucker’s surprise when his agent pitched him the idea. The Friday actor-turned-$20 million-a-movie-star was probably the most noted of a galaxy of comedians who had mined Jackson’s legacy for cheap material. On a Def Comedy Jam set in the early ‘90s, Tucker reimagined Jacko as a pimp. He danced to “Another Part of Me” in his breakout 1998 vehicle Rush Hour, all elastic kicks and side-to-side swagger. It was comedy that aped the singer’s most familiar, easily impersonated traits. Now he was on the set of “You Rock My World,” a video that saw Jackson ape himself.
He might be universally recognized as the greatest music video artist of all time, but Michael Jackson’s output is spotty when you break it down. He made “Thriller,” of course, and deserves credit for expanding the outer limits of what the medium can do. But for every “Remember The Time” or “Beat It” you get a “You Are Not Alone” or, fucking hell, “What About Us.” You wouldn’t know it, but Jackson’s free throw percentage wasn’t exactly Ray Allen-like.
“You Rock My World” should have been the biggest turkey in his catalogue. His chemistry with Tucker is fractured. There’s some mild racism as the pair flip off a Chinese restaurant owner. And because Jackson loved big name cameos, it co-stars Billy Drago, Michael Madsen, and a sleepy Marlon Brando, who hardly tries to hide that he was there to pick up a check.
But impossibly, the whole thing works. The years had robbed Jackson of a step or two, but watching him jerk, twirl and move—Fedora hat pulled down, white socks pulled up—was still one of pop’s great visions. For 13-minutes he rolls back the years and offers shades of the entertainer he used to be. “You Rock My World” may be derivative as hell, but MJ made the kind of video he knew how to make—a multi-million dollar gumbo of bizarrerie stacked on bizarrerie, set in a world where Hype Williams never existed. He’d spawned dozens of imitators, but in 2001, Michael Jackson could still be the world’s best Michael Jackson.
And yet Invincible was probably the biggest disappointment in a career that rarely seemed to satisfy Jackson. Today it’s remembered as a cultural oddity. The most expensive album of all time-turned-CD bargain bin filler. It’s not quite enough of turkey to be remembered in infamy like, say, Chinese Democracy, but one that’s been conveniently forgotten. 15 years on, we’re no closer to fully contextualizing Invincible’s place in Jackson’s indomitable legacy.
I was just a teenager in the autumn of 2001. There wasn’t a lot to do for an Irish teenager in 2001 if you couldn’t play soccer or cop cheap beer from lackadaisical off-license clerks. So I passed the time fiddling with videogames and watching MTV Base, a channel that probably wouldn’t have existed if Michael Jackson hadn’t charged a music video big bang years before. “You Rock My World” rippled through the network like an aftershock. You kept it on in the hope of seeing the full 13-minute version.
If you grew up in the aftermath of Thriller, Michael Jackson was a constant in your life. Like Catholicism, heavily-marketed breakfast cereals, and episodes of You Can’t Do That on Television, I was indoctrinated into MJ’s music without any real say in the matter. These were inescapable absolutes sewn into the cultural fabric. At least with “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” you could move your body to the beat.
My earliest memories aren’t even of anything tangible. I remember being afraid of the dark and forbidden specter of “Thriller” long before watching the video itself. I spent a lot of hours playing outside, but an exception was made on Sunday nights, when The Simpsons aired. After Jackson’s episode went out in 1991, the neighborhood kids jumped up from in front of their TVs and descended back onto the streets, kicking a ball around the hard asphalt, singing that catchy-as-hell hook: “Lisa it’s your birthday/ Happy birthday Lisa.”
When “They Don’t Care About Us” came out as a single in 1996, my schoolmates and I would replicate the distinctive beat by clapping our hands and drumming on the school tables and benches with our feet. The video, shot in Rio de Janeiro, depicted a world none of us recognized. We accepted that Jackson could float in and out of this universe because he had powers. His unusual face was no stranger than Captain America’s mask or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s mutated features. To us, Michael Jackson was a superhuman. You didn’t hear about the child molestation accusations, because you were a kid and didn’t need to hear about that.
Invincible was different. By 2001, I was a burgeoning music nerd. In the schoolyard, pirated Method Man CDs were now the currency of cool. Jackson seemed stuffy and old fashioned. Relentless celebrity gossip stories and a refusal to evolve with the times had taken a toll on his standing. Still, for the first time, I was old enough to truly drink in a Michael Jackson album cycle. Whatever happened, this was going to be my MJ album. “You Rock My World” instilled the belief that it could be a great one.
The record was intended to be a purging exercise for Jackson. It was crystalized in that album title. Invincible. Too powerful to be defeated or overcome. An artist accelerating away from a new generation of competition like Michael Johnson executing the bend. No demons let through the door. The cleansing rain to wash his increasingly tarry legacy. “Invincible is the most important album of his career—a real maker or breaker,” declared Peter Robinson, pop critic for NME and The Face, ahead of its release. Could Jackson put it all together?
II. I Can’t Do It By Myself
Sometimes I listen to Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” and wonder what Michael Jackson’s autumn output might have been like if he had tried to exorcise the past. What if he’d experienced a period of catharsis, cut off all his hair, retired the dance moves and pushed himself to work with a producer like Timbaland? The tweaked-out synth soundscape of “My Love” could have fueled in the kind of late career revival you rarely find in pop music history.
Jackson was in the studio to work on Invincible as early as October 1997, just months after the release of his sleight remix record Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix. Babyface and R Kelly were recruited—producers who could make music that would comfortably slide into the MJ canon. Long-time collaborator Teddy Riley came on board towards the end of production. The wildcard, though, was Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins.
It was a formula that had worked for Jackson before. On Dangerous he’d brought in Riley, the hip Harlem kid who came up using the likes of Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown and his own group Guy to blaze his brand of smooth melodies over walloping drum machines, forming a cornerstone of what would be called new jack swing. Riley eventually cut eight of the album’s tracks, including “Jam,” “In The Closet,” “She’s Driving Me Wild,” and “Remember the Time”—songs that made The King of Pop cool in an era of new jack beats, golden age hip-hop, and carnal R&B crooners.
With Jerkins, Jackson had a pathway to a more modernized style. At a time when The Neptunes and Timbaland’s offbeat funk and digital grooves were becoming the blueprint, Darkchild offered a more stylish, symphonic sound. By the end of 1998—the year Jerkins turned 21-years-old—his Rolodex already included Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Joe, and Tatyana Ali. Brandy and Monica’s massive single, “The Boy Is Mine,” showcased his brand of sleek, poised, cool-as-hell pop music.
With recording reported to have taken place across 10 studios with costs running to $30 million before marketing, Invincible would become the most expensive album ever made. Bottomless resources are one thing, though. Pinning your artist down when he’s the most famous man on the planet is another. Jackson’s full scheduled meant progress was fractured. Then, a year into working with Jerkins, the singer tossed everything and demanded they start again from scratch. Not that the young producer minded. He was having too much fun.
“I’ll never forget, Michael just let me take all my friends and literally gave me Neverland Ranch,” he told Vibe in 2009. “He’d be like, ‘I have to go to Germany for a month,’ and just leave. I’d call everybody I knew, like, ‘Yo, party at Neverland!’”
Despite distractions, Jackson refused to sign off on anything he wasn’t happy with. “He was super vocal. He was so hands on,” said Jerkins. “I’m talking about from the hi-hat to everything. The sound quality was so important to him. He looked at everything under a microscope, like, ‘The middle frequency is too much’–he was very technical. He use to always say, ‘Melody is king’ so he really focused in on melody.”
Invincible begins with silence. It’s a good 8 or 9 seconds before anything is audible. Back in the day, you’d move your head towards the discman to make sure the CD had spun into life. Finally, the distant sound of machinery grinds onto the horizon. There’s the rattle and hiss of analogue equipment, like Jackson was entering the bridge of the USS Enterprise through a cloud of smoke and steam. Then Darkchild’s jackknife piano keys drop, and “Unbreakable” is away. There’s enough pristine power in the track to snap Pro-Tools in half.
Darkchild constructs the soundscape brick-by-brick. Over the symmetrical keys and programmed strings, Jackson’s fires back at the tabloid hacks, media detractors and all general haters. His voice is venomous. It’s a real show of strength: “And I know you hate it, and you can’t take it/ You’ll never break me, ’cause I’m unbreakable.”
In an online audio interview with Rolling Stones’ Anthony DeCurtis, Jackson laid out the turmoil that inspired “Unbreakable:” “I’m one of the few people, probably in show business, that have been through the ins and outs, you know, of so many different things. I’ve been through hell and back…and still I’m able to do what I do and nothing can stop me. No one can stop me, no matter what. I stop when I’m ready to stop.”
It was Jerkins’ idea to resurrect the ghost of The Notorious BIG for “Unbreakable,” pinching his verse from the greatest basketball-playing rapper of all time Shaquille O’Neal’s “Can’t Stop The Reign.” It reunited the pair in spirit after HIStory’s “This Time Around,” a terrible song. We’ll never know if Biggie would have approved.
Jerkins big achievement, though, is “You Rock My World.” The song is as sleek and comfortable as Chris Tucker’s dapper garments. The track still feels fresh today. Like Jackson’s best work, it sleeps above trends.
And yet, Darkchild never sounds completely comfortable on Invincible. “Heartbreaker” is built around a tightly-wound, furiously-strummed acoustic guitar loop that’s digitally skewered to within an inch of its life. The title track moves with the guile and efficiency of a well-programmed android, but with no soul or humanity underneath the chrome outer shell. On both tracks, the producer veers from the three-piece suit pop he’d forged his reputation with, pushed towards a more futuristic sound.
Speaking to Vibe, Jerkins hinted at the gap between his vision for Invincible and what Jackson was willing to do: “There’s stuff we didn’t put on the album that I wish was on the album. My first batch [of beats] is what I really wanted him to do. I was trying to really go vintage, old school Mike. And that’s what a lot of my first stuff was, that I was presenting to him. He kept ‘Rock My World’. But he wanted to go more futuristic. So I would find myself at like junkyards, and we’d be out hitting stuff, to create our sound.”
Jackson’s sci-fi vision shows up elsewhere. He reportedly underwent vocal coaching while working on Invincible to deepen his famous falsetto and the results can be heard on “2000 Watts.” Teddy Riley’s rickety beat rumbles like hi-tech machinery held together by duct tape. He would try to repeat the trick the following year with Blackstreet’s “Wizzy Wow,” a song that wins because it goes full ridiculous. Teddy even tapped Mystikal for a verse. Hey, it was the early ‘00s.
“Privacy” updates the framework of “Leave Me Alone.” Jackson targets the paparazzi that make a living hunting him for material. But the aggressive, Hendrix-style rocker he probably envisioned is de-venomed by Jenkins’ spotless production. Jackson cries for Princess Diana, killed in a car crash as paparazzi chased her down (“My friend was chased and confused, like many others I knew/But on that cold winter night, my pride was snatched away”), but there probably wasn’t a photographer in the world that lost sleep after listening to “Privacy.”
“Break of Dawn” and “Heaven Can Wait” are serviceable ballads to slide on a cassette tape mix for your new beau, while “Whatever Happens” is surprisingly graceful for a Michael Jackson-Teddy Riley Latin pop song that may or may not have taken its marks from Santana’s crazily popular Supernatural. Much of Invincible’s punishing 77-minute running time, though, just fails to make an impression. Songs like “Speechless” and “You Are My Life” are sappy enough to slide into a stage musical. They sound like MJ songs, but they’re hardly “Stranger In Moscow.”
The best track by a distance is “Butterflies.” Penned by Philly producer Andre Harris and Marsha Ambrosius for the latter’s neo-soul duo Floetry, Jackson snapped up a demo of the track, smoothed out some of the rough edges and cut a mid-tempo masterpiece. The arrangement is sparse, with Jackson’s falsetto fluttering through the delicate orchestration. It’s one of the few moments on the album when he doesn’t sound like a Michael Jackson impersonator. He sounds like an incredible vocalist, a tender soul, a man in love. He sounds, once again, like the best in the world.
Despite being a single, “Butterflies” wasn’t released with a video. So MTV Base cut its own, assembling clips snatched from Jackson’s heralded video discography into a scrapbook of 20 years of pop genius. It’s a fitting tribute. What comes after is almost too hard to think about.
Invincible has sold around 10 million copies. A crazy achievement for a mortal, but a long way behind Thriller numbers. Much of its lifespan was overshadowed by Jackson’s bitter feud with Sony. His plan to make the barbed “Unbreakable” the first single was reportedly blocked by label execs that favored “You Rock My World,” an easier sell. Invincible eventually spawned just three singles. Dissatisfaction with the budget for the “Cry” video meant Jackson didn’t even star in the clip, making “You Rock My World” his final ever video appearance. There were legal wrangles. Jackson called Tommy Mottola a “devil” and a “racist.”
Then there was the Martin Bashir documentary and fresh allegations of child molestation. Jackson’s attempts to dance for fans on top of a car outside a courtroom looked like the final wisp of creative juice bleeding from his being. In truth, Jackson had never been the same artist after the 1993 allegations, almost always choosing the safe option. Maybe he just wanted people to like him again and so over-and-over again he put on the same show that first won their affections. People have long debated his guilt or innocence, but that discussion seemed to soften when he died in 2009. Instead, the image of that Thriller era showman with the sparkling glove became crystalized in time. The Jackson we wanted to remember.
If nothing else, Jackson gave me a touching point. I check the slowly-increasing white patches on my skin all the time, worrying about the day half my face is affected and I look like I’m corroding. To those that notice, my response is well-drilled: “It’s Vitiligo, the same thing Michael Jackson had.” They instantly understand. I’m grateful for that.
Vitiligo was the original motivation behind the single white glove, used by Jackson to cover up white patches on his skin. It may have been the reason he first started pulling his hat way down over his features. He covered up the spots with make-up and, eventually, had the pigment from his skin permanently removed to balance the tone—a normal treatment. I’m half-white, half-Asian and can tell you the thought of being completely pale is not nothing. The condition makes racial self-identity complex. When I hear “Black and White,” I recognize Jackson had a unique perspective. He was a man who seemed to flitter between races envisioning a world where no one spends their life being a color. A world, maybe, where he could finally belong.
That’s not the world depicted on Invincible. It’s an expensive ball of anger, a punishing exercise in excess and a cautionary example of industry politics. But it’s also home to some of Michael Jackson’s lost gems. A pop culture curio worth reviving. The final creative flicker of a pop genius.