It’s about time. I’m finally writing about one of my favorite artists of all-time. Much like with Prince, I am not starting with my favorite album of MJ’s, but rather, one I never gave much of a chance. I have recently gone on a binge on MJ’s discography, which included a deep dive of the studio albums. I stopped when I landed on HIStory recently because I was intrigued. Wait, is it history? His story? I’m leaning toward “his story”.
The long-winded, full title, HIStory – PAST, PRESENT, and FUTURE – Book 1 is what you’ll see on Spotify or Google. The second disc, in particular, originally released under the name HIStory Continues. I’m just going to call it HIStory, for brevity, but this review is going to specifically cover the second disc, which is all new material. The first disc functions as a greatest hits compilation.
What I found when giving the album my full attention, top to bottom, is that I had really underestimated it as a whole. To be honest, I had never given it my full respect and attention compared to who other albums, which I hold in much higher regard. But why? There are some absolute gems and great tracks on this album.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think I’ve always hand-waved this album away because it’s lumped in with the greatest hits disc, and I wrongly assumed that the new material would be full of rejected material from far superior albums, like Bad, and Dangerous. I already liked the songs “Scream”, “They Don’t Really Care About Us”, and “2 Bad,” but I figured those were outliers and thus, mostly ignored the rest. So I’m here to educate myself, sing the album’s praises, and also offer a few critiques along the way.
Written in the wake of his sexual abuse scandal, this album largely focuses on how Michael felt like his back was against the wall. In his words, he was the target of media hate and lies. That’s a theme that you will see a lot in the lyrics for these songs. Much of the album is him working through those feelings, whether they’re sadness, anger, frustration, pain, or learning to smile no matter what. Those are universal concepts though, and while I may not know what it’s like to have the media talk about me, or face incredibly serious legal charges, I can relate to anger and hurt.
I’m not here to comment on the legal troubles he faced, whether or not he was guilty, or any of my personal feelings on the matter. This isn’t the space for that. While an artist’s personal life is intrinsically linked to their music, because they often put so much of themselves and their story into their writing and performance, I am only here to evaluate the musical aspect. Writing, composition, melody, production. That’s not to dodge what he did or didn’t do, but because I simply can’t do that topic justice AND talk about his music, as a fan.
What I can say is that he made a fantastic piece of music here that may often get overlooked in the grand scheme of his discography.
Let’s break down all the new tracks that were released on this album and see if Michael Jackson made HIStory with any of them.
The Tracks of HIStory
The iconic music video has a pretty cool song attached to it. Sis Janet with the assist, the track tackles media slander and and social injustice. The video was ahead of its time and still looks incredible. The song is pretty damn good, too, with plenty of powerful moments and a good, upbeat tempo.
They Don’t Really Care About Us
Unfortunately, this is still relevant with the mistreatment and police brutality toward people of color. The song is also kind of a banger. Another song that sounds ahead of its time, it’s hard to place this as mid-90s. I do wonder if he intended a double-meaning with lines like, “I’m tired of being the victim of hate,” in regards to his legal troubles a couple of years prior. Either way, this song isn’t trying to make nice, it’s just pure, raw emotion.
Stranger in Moscow
Slow on tempo, but fast on themes about anti-media and the isolation of being a target. The snare, whether manufactured by a computer or not, creates an interesting beat that makes you forget it’s actually a slow song.
This Time Around
Another “fuck around and find out” song that goes balls to the wall, MJ’s vocals are seething, as he does a restrained, but angry, takedown of those who prosecuted him during the sexual abuse allegations and trial. The harmonies on the chorus are beautiful. Biggie’s verse feels like it should be out of place because it’s so abrupt, but it fits well with the song thematically. I have to be honest–I thought this was a posthumous guest verse, lifted from an existing Bigge track, or maybe even unreleased material. But no, I just misremembered when Biggie passed. It was 1997, by the way. So this was fresh, new verse for Michael.
This is a million times better than “Heal The World”, the other popular MJ song about saving the planet and being a better person. That one is slow, olive branch-y, sunshine and rainbows. “Earth Song” is mad. You don’t give a fuck about the planet you live on? What the fuck is wrong with you? His pleading vocals implore us to care about a number of things, including the forest, the sea, animals, and crying children, while a Gospel choir answers him with their own poignant question: “What about us?”
Jackson’s rock song, featuring a solo by Slash, harbors a lot of anger and hatred for “Dom Sheldon”. The lyrics say Dom Sheldon for legal reasons, but the titular character is pretty clearly Thomas Sneddon, the DA who prosecuted him in the 1993 child abuse case. The lyrics are rife with personal accusations and speculations, like “You think he brother with the KKK? I know his mother never taught him right anyway.” It’s an okay song, but the vocals are nearly indecipherable, and it sounds like Michael was holding back a lot of what he really felt, probably for those aforementioned legal reasons.
The most Prince-sounding song that Michael has ever done in my opinion. The low, staccato vocals; breathy harmonies; cool rhythm and slinky bass. The chorus is super catchy and the theme about the corruptive power of money is a timeless topic. Though it’s likely about his accusers, or at the least, exploitative friends, lines like “you don’t care, you just do it for the money” is pretty universal in painting greed as a villain.
I have my opinions about cover songs, and the TL;DR of that opinion is I generally don’t like them. I like this one, but I wouldn’t say it’s better than the original. Definitely different though and worth a listen. Changing the tempo and adding that sick beat was a good decision. Since I’m not a musical expert, I have no idea if that’s a real snare or a digitally replicated one, but either way, it’s quite ear-catching.
You Are Not Alone
The standard, sappy, pop, love ballad with uninspiring music production. I don’t know why they decided to play it so safe and boring on this one. I guess just for the radio-friendly aspect. Though Jackson gives a flawless vocal performance, the song itself does nothing for me. Clearly it does something for other people though because it is the 3rd most-streamed song from this album on Spotify (behind “Earth Song”, strangely enough, and “They Don’t Really Care About Us”, with a whopping 210 million streams. “Earth Song” and “You Are Not Alone” each currently have around 83 million.)
This is an extremely personal song for MJ and doubled as the Free Willy 2 theme song (you may not remember that, but you definitely remember his other hit “Will You Be There?” from the other, more famous Free Willy theme a few years prior). A gorgeous orchestral arrangement complements Michael, as he explains–and one could say, defends–his love of “elementary things”. He asks the listener to not judge him and instead love him. I don’t really care for the song itself much, but I don’t skip it when it comes on. I do feel bad for what Michael had to go through in his childhood. He suffered pretty regular abuse and never got to really have a childhood.
Another scathing takedown about media scandalization, slander, and hate directed at him, Jackson is doing a near-rap on the verses and singing on the chorus. It’s a catchy song despite being angry–something he pulls of quite well on the album. He’s singing through clenched teeth, practically.
On paper, it doesn’t feel like this song should be this good. Sounds like a lame sequel/spiritual successor to “Bad”. Features a guest rap from basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, of all people. It’s as close to hip-hop as MJ will get on a track. The squeaky clean singer (at least, the image he presented), who hardly ever cursed or talked about lewd topics, actually pulls it off. Shaq’s verse is pretty decent. The whole song is fun and catchy and pretty damn awesome.
Once you get past the 1:07 intro of historical audio clips, the song is basically two songs in one. It goes from bad ass, sing-talking verses to this patriotic-sounding pre-chorus and chorus combo. It doesn’t vibe for me. It’s way too much theatrics with the archive clips, the rap bars, then back to the pageantry of the chorus, with a Gospel choir thrown in at the end. It’s not the worst. In fact, I enjoy the individual pieces and the message. It just feels pieced together, disjointed, and lacks a cohesive purpose. I expected more from the title song that talks about legacy and “creating your history”.
Little Susie / Pie Jesu
This song is weird and stands out against the other songs. It’s a creepy, haunting, but wildly theatrical song, like it was made for a movie or music video. The sound design elements (winding up a musical box, girl humming, footsteps) lend to the storytelling, as much as the accompanying symphony, gentle harp, and Jackson’s storytelling. The song does a good job painting a picture and evoking emotion, making me think we really were robbed of an iconic video. However, I’m not a big fan of the song overall, especially when fan accounts across the internet tell you the song is based on a true story– but there is no evidence of that from a reputable source.
The saccharine-sweet Charlie Chaplin cover is a sunshine and rainbows song about how smiling can change your perspective. It would be toward the bottom of track rankings, but I still have to give Michael credit for a flawless vocal performance, while dreamy keyboard notes and strings back him up. The whistling toward the end drives me crazy, but it’s a nice song otherwise, if not a tad forgettable and unworthy of standing up to the giants of his discography.
I’m Queen Dopamine and I write about music for the layman. I do album reviews for new and new-to-me albums (or, just because). I sometimes do track rankings, first impressions, artist deep dives, and a new “songs I’m listening to” feature.