I liked the groove of the song...it reminded me of Michael's earlier music from back in the day. I remember feeling excited....the King of Pop was back!! I was also excited when, a few weeks earlier, Michael made a surprise appearance with N'Sync at the Video Music Awards. Michael had also been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame earlier that year as a solo artist. It seems he had been easing his way into a comeback, and now things were official with a new single out.
I'll never forget sitting down after school and listening to the album from start to finish for the first time. Early on in the experience I was really enjoying myself. I remember thinking to myself, "This is another Dangerous!" The album is front-loaded with R&B and street songs, which gradually give way to the pop tracks during the second half.
Once Butterflies hit radio waves, I'll never forget my sister and so many of my high school buddies saying this exact sentence; "Michael sounds black again!"
To be fair, Michael never entirely abandoned his R&B and Soul roots, but he no doubt paid more attention to the pop universe after Thriller launched him into supernatural orbits. So I can definitely understand why so many black people I knew were saying that. Invincible appeared to be a long-awaited return to form for Michael.
But the album as a whole left me somewhat disappointed. I've never quite got in tune with this album, and after listening to it in its entirety the other day for the first time in probably two years, I realize what the problems are.
The You Rock My World Short Film
A Cover Album??
At the time, I thought this was an album of all-new Michael Jackson material. But this is only half true; while Michael's voice being on the tracks was new, many of the tracks themselves were not. Here are a few examples..
Heaven Can Wait
I liked the '90s feel of the track. With Teddy Riley producing, it sounded like it wouldn't be out of place on a BLACKstreet album.
But thanks to the internet, I now I know why it sounds like a BLACKstreet song...it originally was!! Here is a link to the demo. There's not much difference between the BLACKstreet version and Michael's.
But like some of the other songs here, it's basically a cover song. Floetry's original demo of the track is not too different from Michael's version. If you really listen, you can hear some of Marsha Ambrosius' original background vocals and adlibs still intact on Michael's version.
The song tells a nice story of loyalty between two lovers. I love the latin grooves and guitar showmanship of Santana, but I'm no fan of Michael's singing here. All he does is growl, snarl and stutter through the track.
But the song is another cover song, and like Butterflies, it sounds almost spot on like the original version. They basically just added Michael's voice and Santana on guitar.
Break of Dawn
Another favorite of mine. These are the kinds of R&B ballads we'd been missing from Michael. One can't help but notice how age and time have affected Michael's voice and style. 43 year-old Michael sung this differently than the 23 year-old Michael would have, but that's not a bad thing. The song was recorded in a low key, giving Michael's voice plenty of space to shudder, hiccup, float, growl or whatever else he attempts to convey. The song is a tropical groove. Like an older Jackson ballad (Liberian Girl) we're greeted by birds at the start of the song.
Dr. Freeze is my personal favorite producer to work with Michael. The three songs they collaborated on, (Break of Dawn, Blue Gangsta and A Place With No Name) are all among my favorite Michael Jackson songs of all time. Freeze has a knack for melodic grooves and patterns that repeat themselves and hook you in.
On each song they collaborated on, Freeze sang the background vocals and did so in a thick, choral way that added more depth to the songs. (Freeze said in an interview that Michael loved Freeze's background vocals so much that he just left them as is)
But unlike the other demos, this one came a long way. Michael and Freeze actually put in some work here and completely reworked this song...the only remains of the weird demo are the chords.
Too Many Cooks In The Kitchen
On Invincible, there are times when Michael ends up sounding like a guest singer on his own album. There are only two songs written and produced by Jackson alone - Speechless and The Lost Children.
R. Kelly, Babyface, Rodney Jerkins, Teddy Riley, Andre Harris and Dr. Freeze all make contributions to this album, and as a result the Michael Jackson magic gets lost at times. For starters, Michael started having other people singing background vocals with him. Those signature Michael Jackson harmonies are solely missing on this album; You Rock My World may be the only song where he sung all the vocals.
We only get a signature "Hee-Hee" one time on the whole album, and that was on the song, Privacy. The different producers and writers on the album were leading Michael in different directions and it was as if he wanted to please all audiences so he allowed them to have their way. The result is an uneven collection of songs, especially on the second half of the album.
When you reference Michael's earlier solo albums, you'll notice that he worked best with just one producer. This is why Off The Wall, Thriller and BAD were so consistent as albums- the tracklists were shorter, and Michael was able to establish a set sound with Quincy that flowed throughout those albums.
Hiring all of these outsiders was a mistake. You Are My Life is easily the worst song Babyface ever wrote in his life. How the hell did this weepy song make the album? The R.Kelly contribution, Cry, is a blatant remake of Man in The Mirror, right down to the repeating "Woo!"s at the climax of the song.
Break of Dawn was a brilliant song, as was Butterflies. I can't help but feel that if Michael worked solely with Dr. Freeze or Andre Harris, the entire album would have maintained the sound of those songs. That's the album we thought we were going to get, and the album we needed.
Timing is everything, and the bottom line is that they took too long working on Invincible. Each of the Rodney Jerkins tracks already sounded outdated by the time the album was released.
The digital bouncy beats produced by Jerkins sounded just like the material he was producing in the late '90s for artists like Joe, Destiny's Child, Brandy, etc. You Rock My World was recorded in October 1999, and you can tell by listening to it. By 2001 when it was released, the song was already two years old.
Also, Rodney and Michael were attempting to mimic the sounds that Timbaland had been using during the late '90s and early 2000s. The sharp hi-hat patterns on Heartbreaker are the same ones heard on the Jay-Z song Jigga What? Likewise, the "burping" bass effect on Heartbreaker was borrowed from Pony by Ginuwine. (Both songs were produced by Timbaland). But again, by 2001, Timbaland had already long moved on from that digital percussive sound.
R&B had changed by 2001 and the neo-soul sound was taking off, which is why Butterflies was one of the few songs on the album that sounded current at that time. Invincible (especially the Rodney Jerkins-produced tracks) would have fared much better if it had been released in 1999.
What I liked
While Invincible is MJ's most flawed album in my opinion, that doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to like about it. Michael's last true R&B albums were Off The Wall and Thriller (although both albums had their pop moments). Some of the songs on Invincible (particularly Break of Dawn, Heaven Can Wait and Butterflies) were the most soulful we've heard him since those albums. This was the closest thing to a pure R&B album we had from Michael since Thriller.
I like how Michael tried new things vocally on this album. An obvious example being the song 2000 Watts, where Michael's voice is oddly pitched noticeably deeper. To this day, fans disagree about whether his voice was digitally deepened as an effect for the song or if Michael naturally sung it that way. Regardless, it's a standout moment. Michael's crying falsetto on Butterflies is another. These are vocal surprises no one expected.
Speaking of vocal surprises, Michael's speaking voice also underwent a temporary change around this time. His voice on the intro to You Rock My World is not the childish whisper we're used to hearing from Michael. He also spoke with a more resonant voice in the music video. If this was a ploy to realistically embrace a new audience and appear less weird, I think it was an admirable attempt. The elusive Peter Pan persona was not winning people over in the 2000s.
You Rock My World wasn't a bad song, and it was a nice modern twist on the sound Michael had when he worked with Quincy Jones. The structure of the song and the way he sung it reminds me of Remember The Time, however.
Speechless is another album highlight. Because he wrote and produced the track by himself, it is one of the few "pure Michael" moments on the album. We needed much more of this.
Speechless and Butterflies remind you that the man could still sing. Both songs (especially Butterflies) showed that Michael still had the same falsetto voice that accompanied the lush grooves on Off The Wall and Thriller.
Speechless opens in acapella, a rare treat for a Michael Jackson album. As his adult career went on, Michael become more a dancer who sang rather than a singer who danced. Some of these songs are a good reminder that although he adjusted his style as he aged, he could still sing as good as anybody.
More so than the music, Invincible reminds me of exactly what was going on in my life at that time. I was in the 10th grade, learning how to drive, and I had my first date just days before the album dropped. America was still recovering from 9/11, and Chris Jericho had just finally won "the big one" by defeating The Rock at WWE No Mercy.
Even though overall the album disappointed me, it reminds me of what life was like as a 15 year-old during that breezy fall of 2001.