This man was once the future of Home Video
For the past couple of years, Michael Jackson has surrounded himself with a weird cloud of mystery, which was probably a good idea on his part. His public image had become bafflingly bizarre; he’d spent years hitting levels of insanity that we don’t think he could possibly ever surpass them and then surpassing them. It had become harder and harder to think of Jackson as a musician or as an artist with so many layers of persona in the way. After the endless child-molestation courtroom drama and bankruptcy rumors, it made sense for him to get out of town and lay low for a little while. Still, Jackson is pretty much the most popular singer in the history of pop music, and he can’t just disappear completely. So every loose crumb of information that makes its way onto the internet gives a tantalizing, frustrating glimpse of a disturbed, hermetic genius on the run from the people who once loved him. He’s living in Dubai, he’s eating lamb with Whoo Kid, he’s signed an album deal with a label owned by Dubai’s royal family and run by the guy who invented Crazy Frog. And now he’s working with Will.I.Am, a story that’s sort of surprising in how unsurprising it is.
Will.I.Am’s had quite a year, inexplicably shaking off some of the cornball-rap associations that he’d earned himself by turning himself into a dancing cartoon and making unlistenable kiddie-rap. He’s sold a ton of Black Eyed Peas records, which probably has something to do with the fact that some credible big-name rappers are totally willing to hire him to make beats and sometimes even to rap. In 2006, he produced songs for Busta Rhymes, Too Short, the Game, Nas, and Common. He made that terrible Sergio Mendes album that I saw staring at me from the counter every time I went into Starbucks for a couple of months. He did a song with Justin Timberlake, probably today’s closest equivalent to 80s-era Michael Jackson. He turned a thirtysomething former speed-freak child actor named Fergie into a pop-radio fixture if not an actual pop star. Even weirder, a lot of those Will.I.Am productions haven’t really been all that bad, and a few of them (the Game’s “Compton,” Nas’s “Hip Hop is Dead”) have been downright good. He’s becoming less and less insistent about making sure he gets to drop his own unbelievably awful verses on all the songs he produces, and he’s only been responsible for a few outright clunkers. That’s not exactly astronomical praise, but it’s a lot more than I expected this guy to manage. A few years ago, I saw the Black Eyed Peas open for Gang Starr in Baltimore, one of the most inappropriate, awkward double-bills I’ve ever witnessed. Today, Will is doing tracks for Nas and Common while DJ Premier keeps his lights on by making tracks for Christina Aguilera and maybe attempting his own extreme pop makeover with Whitney Houston. Will.I.Am has proven himself to be a shockingly adaptable creature, so you can see the reasoning behind one of the most maligned public figures in music wanting a piece of him. And I can’t imagine a much greater challenge for Will than Jackson’s artistic and commercial rehabilitation; I sure wouldn’t turn down the offer if I got that call. So the only remaining question is whether a Michael Jackson/Will.I.Am collaboration has the potential to be any good at all.
It would be a mistake to underestimate Jackson, who’s always been capable of doing great things vocally. I thought Jackson’s maligned 2001 comeback album Invincible was pretty good, even if it was loaded down with too many snoozy ballads, even if it’s impossible not to contemplate how much better it would’ve been if he hadn’t turned down the tracks the Neptunes offered him. The uptempo tracks were sleek and jittery pieces of impeccable studio craft, and he attacked them with all the spastic grace that they demanded. As a singer, Jackson has long put all his effort into the asides; yelps and whoops and sharp exhalations are more important than actual words, and he pants as much as he sings. He never lets his voice float on top of a track. Instead, he dives into it, fighting its current and crashing headlong into its edges like a bird against a window. On Off the Wall, he used that technique to convey total irrepressible joy, but since then, he’s sounded dark and angry and paranoid, like he’s getting out all the frustration that he can’t possibly express anywhere else.
But Jackon’s voice needs itchy, propulsive dance tracks, and Will.I.Am. doesn’t understand dance music the way Invincible producer Rodney Jerkins does, let alone past Jackson collaborators like Teddy Riley and Quincy Jones. I can only think of one Will.I.Am track that would work as a Michael Jackson song: Fergie’s “Fergalicious.” “Fergalicious” is cold and skeletal and catchy as all hell; it’s not that distant from Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Of course, Will.I.Am can’t justifiably claim much credit for “Fergalicious” considering that the song is basically just a wholesale jack of JJ Fad’s bubble-rap nugget “Supersonic.” If Will.I.Am’s ever made a beat that great by himself, I haven’t heard it. The good news is that Will’s never been above complete, shameless appropriation (see also: “Hip Hop is Dead”). If he really wants to bring Jackson back, I’d love to see him do it by raiding his stacks of old electro and freestyle and synthpop and disco records, finding a few great beats for Jackson to sing over, making a couple of minimal tweaks, and then letting them go. Jackson has the money to clear those samples, and it’s the only way this will ever work. If Will ends up presiding over twelve sub-“Man in the Mirror” ballads, I’m going to be pissed.
Voice review: Frank Kogan on Michael Jackson’s Invincible
Voice review: Jason King on the Black Eyed Peas’ Monkey Business
Voice review: Joshua Clover on the Black Eyed Peas’ Elephunk