Lost In Music: Michael Jackson – Invincible
Invincible, the tenth and final studio album by Michael Jackson was released to the word on 30 October 2001, his first studio album of new material since 1991.
10 years is a lifetime in the music industry and whilst Jackson had released HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book I and Blood On The Dancefloor: History In The Mix, a greatest hits collection packaged with new material and remix album of said new material, neither albums fulfilled their commercial potential.
Jackson’s stock had been significantly damaged following the 1993 allegations of child molestation made against him and went on to be further damaged by the infamous 2003 documentary by Martin Bashir, Living With Michael Jackson. It confirmed what many had suspected, that Jackson had lost touch with reality in many respects and was still having inappropriate relationships with children and their families. When Jackson dangled his newborn son, Prince, over the balcony to show fans, his fate – in the eyes of the public and the media – was sealed.
‘Wacko Jacko’ as he was commonly referred to by the media, found himself in a precarious career situation prior to the release of Invincible, the only album required of him to fulfill his contract with Sony Records. A dispute between Jackson and Sony escalated prior to the album’s release.
Jackson had expected the licenses to the masters of his albums to revert to him sometime in the early 2000s. Once he had the licenses, he would be able to promote the material however he pleased and keep all the profits. However, due to various clauses in the contract, the revert date turned out to be many years away. Jackson discovered that the attorney who represented him in the original deal was also representing Sony, who had been pressuring him to sell his share in their music catalog venture for some time.
An indication that the paranoia he demonstrated in his music had spilt over in his day-to-day life, Jackson claimed openly that Sony had a conflict of interest, since if Jackson’s career failed, he would be forced to sell his share of the catalog to them at a low price. Due to this perceived conflict of interest, he sought an early exit from his contract.
Shortly before the release of Invincible, Jackson informed the head of Sony Music Entertainment, Tommy Mottola, that he was leaving Sony. As a result, all single releases, video shootings and promotions concerning the Invincible album were suspended.
With minimal promotion and the ongoing label dispute – during which Jackson labelled Mottola ‘a racist’ and ‘the devil’ – Invincible was released. It went on to sell 13 million copies worldwide, a huge amount of albums for any artist, other than Michael Jackson. To put it into perspective, Thriller, Jackson’s most successful album, is claimed by his estate to have sold 100 million copies worldwide.
When the time came to record Invincible, Jackson chose to work with hitmaker of the moment, Rodney Jerkins. Jerkins, and his production team, collectively known as Darkchild, had crafted huge R&B hits for Brandy, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Toni Braxton, and Britney Spears. His radio-friendly, electronic stuttering beats paired with an array of vocal harmonics had rendered him the go-to man for any artist wanting a sure-fire smash. The Spice Girls even chose Jerkins to produce their third album, Forever.
The biggest selling artist of all time and the hottest producer of the minute seemed like a perfect combination, and in many ways it was.
Invincible was Rodney Jerkin’s dream project. In 1993 he was introduced to Jackson by Teddy Riley, Jackson’s collaborator and producer of Dangerous, and began work on what would eventually become Invincible.
Jackson certainly had a brief for Jerkins when they began to construct the album. Jerkins wanted to return to a classic ‘Jackson’ sound and prepared tracks for Jackson to write over with those sounds in mind.
Jerkins said, ‘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 clearly wanted to create a tough image with this album. It is top loaded with aggressive, tough, metallic beats. Even the titles (‘Unbreakable,’ ‘Invincible’ and ‘Heartbreaker’) conjure masculine street imagery. It was clearly intended to reposition Jackson’s image in the public eye.
The sound Jackson and Jerkins created together is certainly tough and relentless in parts. The repetitive, hypnotic bass riffs on the first three tracks pull the listener in, throw their head into the drum of a washing machine and put it on a long spin. It’s a sound that works really well, but it’s not for everyone.
Jackson’s vocals are grittier, the notes are shorter and therefore add to the aggressive nature of the tracks. On ‘Unbreakable’ he spits, ‘You can’t believe it / You can’t conceive it / And you can’t touch me / ‘Cause I’m untouchable/ … / You’ll never break me / ‘Cause I’m unbreakable.’ Clearly a message to those who had scrutinised his behaviour so heavily over the years, those who doubted his ability to comeback, those who tried to bring him down to ground from which he arose against all odds.
The skittering beats of ‘Heartbreaker’ and electronic blips, a Darkchild staple, complement Jackson’s harmonies perfectly. With so little instrumentation, there is almost nothing to detract from the compelling vocal performance – something which Jackson, in spite of any personal opinion, has always been able to deliver. The track builds to a frantic climax, over which Jackson freestyles and ad-libs displaying stunning melismatic runs, his trademark vocal hiccups and beatboxing.
Yet another thematically indicative titled track follows. On ‘Invincible’ Jackson tells a woman all the ways in which he is better for her than any other man. He can deliver anything she desires, but she seems to be immune to his material offerings, ‘Well, well…’ Jackson sings sarcastically. ‘He says he’ll treat you well? / He can’t treat you like me’.
‘Break of Dawn’ follows, on which the pace is brought down a notch. It’s a romantic, seductive slow jam. More like classic vintage Jackson, brought into the 2000s by Darkchild’s production. It’s an album highlight. ‘Let me show that I’m your man ’til the break of dawn’ Jackson coos over deep, rich harmony parts. The subtle hand-clapping groove, with added finger snaps really gets those hips moving. It’s a nod to his sister Janet’s work and one that suits him well.
Next up, ‘Heaven Can Wait’ which begins with a simple xylophone arpeggio. It’s sensual, sultry and almost sweaty. The tempo clocks in at 59 beats per minute, the slowest song Jackson recorded. The electronic beats and bass drum keep the track moving along simply and certainly smoothly. ‘If the angels come for me I’ll tell them no…’ Jackson tells a lover. He’d rather stay on earth with her than go to heaven alone.
So far on Invincible, we’ve been presented with Jackson the tough guy and Jackson the lover. Almost certainly a conscious decision. Invincible also features more examples of Jackson’s lower register than ever before. Gone are the sweet falsetto’s and breathy coo’s of his 70s & 80s output. We are in full-out masculine territory here.
Lead single, ‘You Rock My World’ comes next, with some of the funkiest rhythms on the album, which almost certainly are intended to reference his earlier work with Quincy Jones. The Minneapolis electronic keyboard patterns are classic 80s, nodding again to his sister Janet’s earlier work. It’s one of the more simple songs on the album, both in terms of concept and composition, which is probably why it was selected to promote the album. It’s slick, radio-ready and polished to within an inch of it’s life. It’s Jackson’s greatest single since ‘Black Or White’, bouncy and infectious and worthy of a number-one spot. However, due to the aforementioned promotional issues, the single reached number 10 in the US and number-two in the UK.
‘Speechless’ follows and brings the tempo down once more. The lyrics discuss being lost for words due to experiencing true love. Jackson wrote the song following a water-balloon fight with a group of children in Germany. He said of the inspirational moment, ‘I was happy, and I wrote it in its entirety right there. I felt it would be good enough for the album. Out of the bliss comes magic, wonderment, and creativity’.
The track ends with a stunning a capella performance of the first verse. It’s a moment on the album where his voice really gets to shine, it’s pure, powerful and emotive. Bruce Swedien, who mixed the track said, ‘Everything with Michael is a stand-out moment but an absolutely gorgeous piece of music called ‘Speechless’ was really an event. Michael sings the first eight bars a cappella. At the end, he closes it off a cappella – it was Michael’s idea to add the a cappella parts.’
‘2000 Watts’ returns the album to uptempo aggressive territory, revisiting the stuttering beats of ‘Heartbreaker’. Then we return to the mid-tempo with ‘You Are My Life’, both great songs in their own right, but certainly not standout tracks.
On ‘Privacy’ Jackson attacks the media for invading his privacy and painting misleading pictures about the man he is, just to sell papers. He is certainly angry on this track and practically growls his way through it: ‘Stop maliciously attacking my integrity!’. ‘I need my privacy’ he pleads. The impressive vocal rhythms elevate this track from being a standard plodding production as does the beat being constructed around flashing camera effects.
‘Don’t Walk Away’ is another ballad, it’s nothing revelatory, but the vocal delivery really elevates it from mediocrity. The pain in Jackson’s vocal is real, the quivering in his voice is so affecting and in turn compelling that it carries the listener through the track. It’s rumoured to be written about Lisa Marie Presley, but that has never been confirmed.
‘Cry’ is an album highlight. A Michael Jackson album wouldn’t be complete without social commentary, a trend which became popular in black music in the 80s, but was left behind by most. It is Jackson in ‘Heal The World’/’Earth Song’ mode.
‘You can change the world / I can’t do it by myself’ he pleads over the simple backing track, urging people to come together to make the world a better place. He co-wrote the track with R.Kelly, whose presence can certainly be felt once the strings and gospel choir kick in towards it rousing ending.
It’s such a shame that such tracks, on which Jackson clearly had honourable intentions, won’t be taken seriously by most. Fox News labelled the lyrics of ‘Cry,’ ‘ridiculous’. New York Daily News said ‘[Jackson] goes into his healing-the-world shtick, though rarely has he been this condescending about his role as universal savior.’ It hardly seems fair.
If they didn’t like ‘Cry’, then ‘The Lost Children’ was certainly going to seem in bad taste to many. An ode to all the lost children of the world, wishing them well. Seemingly an odd choice on an album so clearly designed to realign the public perception of Jackson. It might have been more sensible to leave any mention of children out of it. But the naive innocence of Jackson, who, as it is important to remember, was acquitted of child molestation charges made against him in 2003, may have prevented him from seeing that this might remind people of his less than perfect past.
‘Whatever Happens’ may be the most intriguing track on Invincible. Nestled in as the penultimate track it could be overlooked by many, who at this point in the album’s running time, may have lost interest. Rolling Stone called the song ‘exceptional’, and exceptional it is. Jackson sings in the third person of an unnamed couple in a threatening situation. ‘Whatever happens / Don’t let go of my hand’. A Latin themed number and produced by Teddy Riley who worked with Jackson on Dangerous. Carlos Santana is on passionate form as a featured guitar player and Jeremy Lubbocks strings give the track a symphonic and cinematic edge.
Invincible ends with ‘Threatened’ on which Jackson, almost ironically spits, ‘You should be watching me / You should feel threatened / While you sleep, while you creep / You should be threatened.’ Almost certainly a nod to his public image, and perhaps a one-finger salute to it.
A brilliant Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) spoken verse, reminiscent of ‘Thriller’ complete with howling werewolves, says exactly what Jackson was intending to convey on the track. ‘Never Neverland, that’s the place / This particular monster can read minds / Be in two places at the same time / This is judgement night, execution, slaughter / The devil, ghosts, this monster is torture.’ He knows the public perceive him to be a monster, but that’s all it is, it’s a horror story.
As already mentioned, the intention of Invincible was to remind and persuade audiences that Jackson was just a man, not a monster. A man who loved, a man who experienced real emotions, a man who had been hurt and a man who deserved to be heard. It’s clear that along the way this message got distorted, most probably by Jackson himself, who it’s almost certain was hard to say ‘no’ to.
The album winds up reinforcing what most people thought all along, that Jackson was a strange, eccentric individual that really didn’t exist in the same reality that many of us do. It’s important to remember, however, that even though we may not be able to empathise with a man who is so far removed from life as we know it, we can certainly enjoy his music.
Michael Jackson was and will always be one of the greatest entertainers, recording artists, songwriters and producers of all time. It’s probable that nobody will ever come along like him, though many may try.
Invincible was, unbeknownst to Jackson at the time, the last opportunity he had to commit his thoughts, fears, anger, frustration, passion and love to record. That body of work is phenomenal and a rare achievement. Perhaps it’s time to forget who we thought Michael Jackson was and listen to what he had to say the last time he entered a recording studio.
As Rodney Jerkins himself said, ‘I think Invincible needs to be re-released. Because something happened at the record company that caused them not to promote it no more after we done put our heart and soul in it.’
And that’s exactly what Invincible is, it’s the last glimpse into the heart and soul of a true icon.