By Marc Anthony Neal – Die-hard Michael Jackson fans know that before Thriller, Off the Wall—released 35 years ago this week—was his signature achievement.
What is Michael Jackson’s greatest album? The answer helps establish whether you were introduced to Jackson via Thriller, the crown jewel of his commercial legacy, or whether you were riding with him long before he donned the sequined glove—since Off the Wall, the classic album released 35 years ago this week that represents Jackson at his most brilliant musically and that may be the most perfect pop recording of the late 20th century.
Off the Wall is remembered as the first in a series of collaborations between Jackson and producer-arranger Quincy Jones that would redefine pop. Yet when Jackson and Jones first began to work together, on the set of The Wiz, Jones was actually focused on another young black male vocalist, Luther Vandross, who had contributed “Brand New Day” to The Wiz soundtrack and who was featured on Jones’ 1978 recording Sounds … and Stuff Like That.
That Jackson’s youthful professionalism impressed Jones—himself a veteran of the same chitlin circuit that produced Jackson and his brothers, in the form of the Jackson 5—is no surprise, but Jones also detected a certain something that Jackson possessed—charisma, genius, brashness—that would allow them to push music forward. And “You Can’t Win,” from The Wiz, was the first fruit of their partnership.
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Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter– @NewBlackMan