Why Michael’s least successful solo album may have been his best
“You Rock My World” is my favorite Michel Jackson song. When I tell people that, I get blank stares. Probably for two reasons. 1) They don’t know the song or 2) They think it’s against the law for a someone’s favorite Michael Jackson song to be recorded after 1991. “You Rock My World” was released in 2001 as the lead single of his eventual last studio album, Invincible. Invincible was also the only post-Motown MJ album that could be considered a bust. And by bust I mean it only sold a meager 10 million copies worldwide.
The criteria for determining a favorite song/artist is inconsistent because there are so many factors that go into enjoying music that has nothing to do with the music itself. How much is the popularity of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies based on the video/dance instead of the music? How much is the song “Eye of the Tiger” popular because it’s connected to the Rocky 3 montage? Well “Rock My World” is my favorite song for non-musical reasons too.
That’s because “Rock My World” features my own personal Michael Jackson. Before this song came out, I only knew MJ as the public pop idol that my mom loved. I’ll always remember the awkward moment when she had to convince me the “white woman” I saw on TV was the same person as the afroed kid on the 70s album cover. But up until 2001, Michael Jackson was everyone else’s favorite artist. When I first heard that rhythm guitar lead to that epic baseline, that was the first time I was truly able to enjoy MY version of Michael Jackson. Not as an iconic artists who I’d been told was amazing, but as a brand, new sound that I truly enjoyed.
That was years ago but the feeling remains today. While Thriller and Bad are automatically assumed to be Jackson’s best albums, I think too many of us are substituting cultural significance with musical quality. Yes, these albums are truly pop masterpieces but I’m going to go out on a limb a say that early 2000s Michael was the best version of Michael Jackson we had. I’ve probably lost about half of my readerships after that sentence, but here me out.
Songs and Collaborators
To start off, 2000s Michael is a grown-ass man. Gone are the days of the horny teenage/20/30-something fuckboy that we saw in the 80s and 90s. This is a man that’s been around the block. He’s done with the grabbing of his crotch and telling PYTs how they make him feel. He’s finished playing games with Billie Jean and trying to be bad. 2000s Mike is looking to settle down with a good woman. He’s got kids now (just ignore the whole balcony situation).
But don’t let this more mature Mike fool you. He’ll still have you up in his room with your clothes off by the end of the night. Listen to his conversation with Chris Tucker at the beginning of “You Rock My World.” That’s the voice of a man that has been playing the game for 25 years and now knows all of the cheat codes. He’s still dangerous.
This maturity and wisdom translates into some of the best R&B music this side of D’Angelo. Take the 20 minutes of pure bliss that are the back-to-back-to-back-to back songs of “Break of Dawn” “Heaven Can Wait”, “You Rock My World” and “Butterflies.” To put it simply, if you and your partner are alone when these four songs play straight through, you better have a pack of cigarettes nearby.
What makes this album great is the fact that Michael used his influence in the music business to work with the best talent the late 90s/early 2000s had to offer. Check out the lineup on the songs I listed earlier. “Heaven Can Wait” was written by Teddy Riley, creator of New Jack Swing and my favorite R&B group Blackstreet. “Butterflies” was co-written by Marsha Ambrosius of Floetry. But the collaborations don’t stop there. R. Kelly, Tyrese Gibson and Kenneth “Babyface” Evans all chip in a various points on the album as writers and/or producers.
As impressive as Michael’s R&B collaborators are, what is more impressive is how he uses non-soul artists in his music. It starts with the first song on the album, “Unbreakable.” At the end of the second verse, who should appear? None other then the very dead, but very much alive on this track, Chistopher Wallace. The Notorious BIG. Big Poppa. Mr. Ashy to Classy. Now the fact that Biggie is on a Michael Jackson track was no surprise. He has also appeared in “This Time Around” on the HIStory album back in 1995. What so amazing about this appearance is where he got the verse from. Michael didn’t just take some unused recording no one heard of. He took Biggie’s verse from the venerable 1996 song “Can’t Stop the Rain” featured on Shaquille O’Neal’s album of the same name. We’ve all seen artists sampling another artist’s music to make a better song. But I’ve never seen an artist steal another artist’s guest verse and make it a better verse on their own song. Musical genius
The most unique and satisfying guest appearance has to be “Whatever Happens” with Carlos Santana. To say this song is good is like saying water is wet. This song is the musical embodiment of Antonio Banderas’s swag. Michael Jackson and Carlos Santana on an song together is the artistic equivalent of the DeNiro/Pacino restaurant scene in Heat. With the exception of Bruno Mars, never have the Black and Latino cultures been so well mixed. How this didn’t become a multi-platinum single is beyond me.
A compilation of the previous Michael Jacksons
The final and most important reason that 2000s MJ is the best is that this version of Michael displays all of his previous personalities. Invincible has Angry Mike from “Leave Me Alone” on the song “Privacy”. “Think about the kids” Mike from “Change the World” makes you feel guilty for living your life in “The Lost Children” and “Cry”. And despite the fact that I said MJ has matured over the years, fuck boy/stalker Mike from “The Way You Make Me Feel” is still around as horny old man Mike in “Threatened” and “Break of Dawn”. If there is an era of Michael Jackson you enjoy, it can be found on this album.
At the end of the day, it’s easy for us to assume that just because someone isn’t as popular as they once were, the quality of their music has gone down. That isn’t always the case. Truly great artists are constantly evolving and reinventing themselves as they gain more experience in the world. Just because an artist isn’t what you remembered them being, doesn’t mean they still aren’t as fantastic. Michael Jackson is a great artist because he just makes great music, regardless of how much it sells.
That’s what makes him Invincible.