If any doubts persist about the flat-lining of Michael Jackson's music career, the Gloved One's resurrection/comeback effort, Invincible, puts every last one of them to rest. Overproduced from start to finish, Invincible epitomizes the stale character of late '90s pop-hop-fusion studio creations. Laced with driving beats, trite lyrics and overpowering bass lines, Invincible is Jackson at his worst: catchy but uninspired, listenable but predictable, desperate to please but devoid of any modicum of artistic risk-taking.
Invincible's lead single, "You Rock My World," aptly demonstrates exactly what's wrong with the album and, sadly, with Jackson himself. With a Velveeta-oozing introduction featuring black comedic actor du jour Chris Tucker, Jackson begs us to like him again with forced lyrics about getting some "bangin'" girl. (Perhaps the Moonwalker should duet with Ricky Martin. Maybe George Michael can produce.) The playful macho-posturing is so hollow you'd almost wish Jackson had just leveled with us. Go ahead, MJ: "I swear I'm normal. I like women. Forget about out-of-court settlements. Forget about my melting nose and my mysteriously fading complexion, about Lisa Marie and my eerie resemblance to Diana Ross." These lines of subtext permeate "You Rock My World," but the creative veneer is too transparent. The result is a bad joke, a caricature of an icon who instead of reveling in his differences does all he can to cover them up.
The rest of Invincible is shockingly forgettable. Three tracks feature a "breaking" theme--"Unbreakable," "Heartbreaker" and "Break of Dawn." The first is another "defiant" anthem explaining Michael's invincibility. ("Invincible" is another track altogether, but the distinctions are hardly noteworthy.) "Heartbreaker" adopts a bit of the two-step fla-vah already made famous by up-and-comers like Craig David. (Sorry, Michael. No vanguard accolades for this bandwagon-hop.) And "Break of Dawn" is one of a half dozen schmaltzy ballads that go nowhere. By the time "Butterflies" spins on track seven, it's unclear why Michael didn't record a collaborative boxed set with Mariah Carey, whose "Heartbreaker," "Breakdown" and "Butterfly" would fit quite nicely into Jacko's set.
But Jackson doesn't stop there. On "Speechless," he croons a capella, demonstrating a disturbing vocal androgyny that gives falsetto a bad name. "Privacy" is yet another self-aggrandizing declaration of independence. Maybe Michael's forgotten he deemed himself the King of Pop, and sitting on a throne isn't meant to be easy, whether you're in Buckingham Palace or the Neverland Ranch. "Threatened," or "Thriller Redux," is laughably ominous, with lines like, "I'm the living dead, the dark thoughts in your head" and "I'm not a ghost from hell, but I've got a spell on you."
Invincible is not without a few bright spots, but they're by no means MJ classics. "2000 Watts" finds Jackson's voice distorted, his notes actually modulated to the register of a post-pubescent male. (Who knew a vocoder could do so much? He actually sounds human.) "Don't Walk Away" is a decent R&B melody, but Luther Vandross would do it greater justice. Michael's reed-like whispers and shrill cries make most of his down-tempo efforts unbearable. Like sister Janet, he lacks everything in vocal oomph and compensates with signature noises and sounds. Sha-moan, then. Sha-moan!
Jackson's newest effort is all the more tragic because it should have been good. Jackson spent years on this comeback, carefully pruning his track list to a set of 16 cuts. But he should've trusted his own instincts instead of relying so heavily on Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, the wYnderkind producer who's worked with Brandy, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. The problem is simple: Michael's newest cuts are a twisted fusion of old-school MJ and commercialized R&B thump. The vocals are subordinate (But who could complain?), the lyrical narratives are been-there-done-that, and the holistic theme is defensive, superficial and all too calculated. It's sad: Somewhere along the way, the King of Pop lost touch with the Man in the Mirror.