Michael Jackson: The Writings on the Wall

The King of Pop’s greatest hits were penned by the King of Pop himself. On the one-year anniversary of his death, The Root takes a look at Jackson’s lyrical prowess.

Phil Walter/Getty Images
Phil Walter/Getty Images

Michael Jackson’s songwriting accolades are long overdue. For many, his extant death prompted scores of self-professed music connoisseurs to disinter a body of work that exhibited a ”mean pen game”–a contemporary colloquialism suggesting a profound writing ability.

This skill is not readily associated with Jackson for several reasons. For the most part, his records were up-tempo productions driven by an insanely stylized beat. His lyricism, however ingenious, could never withstand the verve of the instrumentation that routinely propelled listeners to the dance floor in a mindless recitation of profoundly unique and insightful lyrics.

Hip-hop fanatics, captivated by the genre’s multifaceted, multisyllabic free-styling antics, would be remiss if they didn’t take note of Jackson’s lyrical skills. He, too, recorded songs completely off the cuff during impromptu recording sessions. Unbeknownst to many, he often hummed elaborate melodies for producer-extraordinaire Quincy Jones to reference when creating the musical arrangements. (And, it should be noted, Jackson often felt that he deserved co-producing credits for such arrangements.)

Jackson did away with the conventional in R&B music: the crooning, the countless romantic sentiments the genre rendered trite. Instead, he penned songs in a film noir cinematic fashion, an unprecedented fusion of writing styles. Like Quentin Tarantino and gore screenwriters alike, he scripted one of the most paranoiac crime scenes in his 1988 hit, ”Smooth Criminal,” detailing the untimely doom of a woman named Annie. In ”Billie Jean” and Dirty Diana,” he told the story of two femme fatales with ulterior motives–one claiming Jackson fathered her son and the latter a shrewd and seductive groupie that ensnarls Jackson in an extramarital affair. He managed to take courting to new heights in ”The Way You Make Me Feel,” making the perennial male pick-up lines seem sweet and endearing.