Who Is It: An Appreciation #Dangerous25
James Brown, Prince, and Michael Jackson are the masters of rhythm in our time. And rhythm being nothing but eroticism set to time, their music, whatever its subject, has the effect of an aphrodisiac.
James Brown is the troubadour of gospel call-and-response that he made irresistibly combustible with his vocal inflections. Prince is the bacchanalian genius who revels in virtuosic experimentation and histrionic abandon. With Michael Jackson one finds something elusive and illusive. He can be feral like James Brown on his propulsive night train or devilishly insouciant like Prince in his scandalous love suite. But at its greatest, Michael Jackson’s music has something else, the quality of hallucination. His most compelling stories in sound, whether about extortion (Billie Jean), rape (Smooth Criminal), prostitution (Who is It), exile (Stranger in Moscow), or addiction (Morphine) have a spectral grace, suspended in animation, dream-like, as in a mosaic. His concerts are essays in movement but also stillness, mysteriously hieratic, full of long poses and shifting choreographic tableaux punctuated by stops and silences. His videos abound in echoes, shadows, reflections, and transformations. Echoes reverberate across his songs as much as silhouettes do on his stage, across the taut bridge of Smooth Criminal, the lone synth on the spoken passages of In the Closet, the swirling vocal layering on Why You Wanna Trip on Me, the melancholic keyboard bridge in Stranger in Moscow, and the wistful whistles in Whatever Happens.
Who is It is a different kind of hallucination. That haunting intro with those soprano voices dying with a dying fall, like a dim breeze across a vast urban desert, harks back to the descending string punctuations of Billie Jean. And echoes permeate that famous Who Is It beat too. That cracked-heartbeat of a percussion that is on the face of it, a slowed-down homage to James Brown’s ‘I Got the Feeling’. But he uses that queue from James Brown only as a point of departure to create an alchemy of rhythm. Critics were puzzled and disoriented by the beats on Dangerous, one calling them “abrasively unpredictable”, and another “like computerised artificial respiration”. But that’s the point. The cracked-heartbeat of a percussion in Who Is It rises and falls in unpredictable patterns; the vocal hiccups both echo and syncopate the thudding drum machine and Louis Johnson’s bass in a ménage of cardiac gasps, retches, and shocks. What sound like three-note rhythmic motifs that echo the melismatic sighs in the soprano intro, are basically only two notes pounded alternatively and insistently in duple time, creating a rhythmic ambiguity, like a sort of dirge-like boogie throbbing precariously inside “one dying head”. It’s a masterpiece of invention, and why his beats are endlessly studied by contemporary producers. Take that gulping sob peppered throughout that syncs exactly with the beat – surely the funkiest crying ever recorded?'
He often said he preferred making his own sounds to using sounds from keyboards or programmed machines. The result being his beats have the heft of something organic, with the urgent restlessness of human breath rather than mechanised static (although he could do that too, in Morphine) even when borne on beds of drum machines. Also why I think he broke away from Quincy Jones. He wanted to channel back to the funk of a forty thousand years—the circular, repetitiveness of the vamp in Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, the looping grooves of James Brown. One only need think of the molten bed of percussion in Can’t Let Her Get Away.
Much as MJ’s music is an invitation to dance, it also has an element of melancholy all his own. These shadows clothe his arrangements in a mystery, not unlike the sfumato in an Old Master painting, all smoky shadows, ambiguous modeling, shifting smiles. The suppleness of his percussion allows him to combine that icy Who Is It intro and ‘abrasive’ percussion with the most sinuous strings, which come at you in waves, circling but never resolving. And there’re the seamless transitions from intro-verse-bridge-chorus-outro-fade-out. His vocal delivery too is full of light and shadow, his voice smooth, imploring, caressing one moment, and then breaking out in harsh, coiled, turgid accents. It’s a method he started perfecting long ago in ‘Maria’.
That Who is It chorus is like a gospel incantation, a melody going on into infinity, like the soldiers under a twilight sun in This is It. It has the same harmonic profile as the throbbing rhythmic pattern of the beat; but the moment it seems like it is resolving, he destabilises it with the persistent ‘Who Is It?’, the question-and-answer of gospel—only that here it is several Michaels in a dialogue and self and soul, questions echoed with questions, as in a hall of mirrors, or as what Jon Pareles called ‘an electronic wilderness’. When the instrumental bridge comes in, it takes up the soprano theme of the intro, and then improvises it on the synth with the same echoing effect heard throughout, probing, questioning, rippling, and fading through an unending night, and engaging the strings as in a vast antiphonal choir in a church full of mosaics.
This mosaic-like quality of Who Is It is well-captured in David Fincher’s plush video with its purple shadows where surfaces reflect and refract, a world of smoky decadence, more urban and more desolate than the degenerate juke-joint of Smooth Criminal. When you think of it, mystery permeates so many of his videos and concerts. The man made an art out of disappearing, as if enacting the alchemy of rhythm through his body itself. Only through artifice he comes alive; his conceptions, always grand and operatic, are ringed everywhere by illusion: silhouettes, shadows, and mirrors. He vanishes into sand, shadows, smoke, mist, fire, leaping in, flying out. Never wanting to be chained to earth.
Who is It is a kind of cross-roads in his career, combining as it does his rhythmic invention and melodic sensibility. Henceforth, with some exceptions, there’s a dividing line between his jams and his ballads. The jams will be seething, with swaggering verses, clenched-teeth choruses acerbic, wrought-iron beds of percussion and arrangements, all rhythm, with his voice sounding as if on the rack; and the ballads all melody, simpler, sweeter and more soaring.
The worst of showbiz always brings out the best in him, transmuting tales of treachery and feelings of disgust and loneliness into lusciousness that ravishes the ear. Always makes me think of what Alan Light said, “Michael Jackson's finest song and dance is always sexually charged, tense, coiled - he is at his most gripping when he really is dangerous.”