Off the Wall, Michael Jackson’s 1979 collaboration with producer Quincy Jones, is usually cited as the self-proclaimed King of Pop’s coming-of-age record. It signaled that little Michael of the “I Want You Back”/“ABC” era had matured into a full-fledged pop genius.
Those paying close attention, however, might have noticed that Michael’s breakthrough actually happened a year earlier with his brothers on their Destiny album. After an awkward stretch which saw them leave Motown, split with brother Jermaine, and languish in bad-song hell, Destiny found them taking over the production reins, writing their own material, and re-establishing themselves as the first family of bubblegum soul.
New, expanded editions of Destiny and its 1980 successor, Triumph, not only provide us with bookends for Off the Wall, they foreshadow Michael’s unprecedented rise and fall. Destiny’s defining track, “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” established a groovalicious template for “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” “Burn This Disco Out” and every other dance epic Michael would subsequently grace us with (and no one, excepting James Brown, and possibly Madonna, has obsessed as much about the erotic power of the dance floor).
Triumph, a confident reaction to Off the Wall’s success, opens with the trumpet fanfares of “Can You Feel It,” a hint of the messianic grandiosity that would eventually lead Michael to endless videos with the likes of Macaulay Culkin. On that same album, “Heartbreak Hotel” is the first sign of Michael’s fascination with horror imagery, and it easily outclasses “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal.”
Both albums amount to a few inspired tracks surrounded by polished filler. Triumph’s disposables tend to be rhythm workouts, which gives that album a slight edge, but there’s little else to separate these two works. As for the bonus tracks, John Luongo’s disco mixes are a waste, especially in the case of “Shake Your Body” (Who needs an extended mix for a song that’s already eight minutes long?).
It’s remarkable to think that between 1978 and 1980 Michael Jackson released three albums of new material (and recorded a live album with his brothers). The crippling, I-must-top-myself self-consciousness that infected him after Thriller was hardly imaginable here. This Michael Jackson was just a guy who loved to sing and did it better than anyone on the planet.
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