By Shelby Powell
Michael Jackson’s talent was larger than words. You could call him a creative genius or a brilliant performer, but those declarations still wouldn’t do him justice. His gift was developed meticulously under the watchful eye of his father and with the help of four brothers, but his musical capacity wasn’t truly realized until he stepped out on his own. It was then that the world realized he was more than the child star who fronted the Jackson 5. He was a prodigy, for lack of a better word.
His first two albums as a liberated man were Off the Wall and Thriller. Even though released in 1979 and 1982 respectively, the pair still stand as the barometers by which all other R&B albums are measured. Innovative, groundbreaking and inventive production was layered with Jackson’s crisp voice which dramatically morphed from tenor to falsetto at the drop of a hat. The song writing is brilliant on both and the spectrum of sounds, mind boggling. But as good as each is, everyone has a favorite.
Off the Wall has been declared by music experts as one of the best albums of all time, genre not withstanding. The album had dance tracks but, they were beyond disco. They were funk filled odysseys that added disco interpretations but still managed to focus on the lyrics. “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” the lead single, showcased Jackson’s falsetto in a way his listeners had never heard before. His delivery was laid back and comfortable, the lyrics were suggestive and the adlibs were ingeniously layered. But dance music was just the tip of the iceberg.
The album had several levels from heart-tugging ballads like “She’s Out of My Life” to mid tempo masterpieces like the “Rock With You” and “I Cant Help It.” The production was no less perfectly assorted, sliding from funk to disco to pop and even jazz without missing a beat. Michael Jackson had managed in his first project without the iron grips of both Barry and Joe to produce the definitive 70’s album. And he did so with a style and panache that was unequaled. Even the glitter socks he wore on the album cover were a statement of individuality.
The album has, to date, sold 20 million copies worldwide and is no less exciting than when it was released almost three decades ago. But Michael didn’t want to stop there. He and Quincy went back into the lab with a similar but broadened formula in 1982. The production influences were similar, but the lyricism was deeper, darker and a bit more eclectic. The final product was Thriller.
Boasting a song for almost every R&B, rock and pop taste at only nine songs, Thriller’s world wide sales count has never been exactly measured. However, it is still listed as the best selling album of all time. There are emotional ballads like “Human Nature” and “The Lady In My Life.” The former was described by music critic Bill Lamb as the blueprint for what would become adult R&B. The funkier musical incarnations of the album incorporate elements that weren’t previously used in pop music. “Wanna Be Starting Something” comes complete with an African chant and the intro to the title track sounds like a horror movie trailer. But as widespread as it was, it converged perfectly to create one of the most awesome albums ever made.
Michael Jackson continued to record albums and many of his later offerings were block busting records. However, nothing compares to the pair that hurled him into the pop star stratosphere. Off the Wall and Thriller are the definitive masterpieces of his catalogue and they cemented his ascension to King. But which pulls rank? You decide.