On Dangerous, humanity lets Michael Jackson down at every turn. Women are tramping on his fragile soul and breaking his heart, and his fellow citizens can’t be bothered with trying to save this parched, crumbling mound of mud we call earth. ”Everyone’s taking control of me/Seems that the world’s got a role for me/I’m so confused,” Jackson sings (presumably to his God) in one of the album’s three overtly hymnlike numbers, complete with enough choirs and orchestration to boost what sounds like his sagging morale.

Coming from a man whose videos suggest his idea of ”street” is a Hollywood soundstage, such sentiments make you take notice; for the first time, he appears to be revealing a little of the mind behind the plastic surgery. But just as the lyrics seem burdened, so does the music. His solo triumphs — Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad — had their share of fluffy songs and gimmicks, but they were supremely confident albums; the music glided on air. That confidence, though, is almost absent from Dangerous. A sprawling album (14 cuts, 77 minutes) with little center, it is the least assured record of Jackson’s post-Motown career, a belabored attempt to be all things to all record buyers at a time when such a goal may be beyond even Jackson’s reach.

Working without steadfast producer Quincy Jones, Jackson tosses cohesion to the wind and instead touches on every contemporary style of R&B, from rap and hip-hop gospel to new jack swing. The idea is to make him seem down with urban teenagers, but he just seems insecure: Does Jackson doubt his instincts so much that he has to graft raps onto his songs? Even more problematic is his work with new jack producer-writer Teddy Riley. On paper, the combination of Jackson’s lithe voice and Riley’s exuberant mesh of hip-hop and soul sounds combustible, and on at least one song — the clenched-teeth ”Why You Wanna Trip on Me” — the collaboration adds a fresh, seething dimension. But Riley’s style is denser and more bass-heavy than the singer’s air-cushioned pop, making Jackson’s music lumber where it once soared.

When Jackson isn’t dabbling, he’s in retreat. ”Heal the World” is a more cloying ”We Are the World”; the sappy ”Gone Too Soon,” a tribute to Ryan White, who died of AIDS, recasts the equally melodramatic Off the Wall hit ”She’s Out of My Life,” even down to Jackson’s sobs during the finale. He still knows how to fashion a hook that will take up permanent residence in your brain (away from its video, ”Black or White” is spare and effortless). And when his voice isn’t competing with drum machines, it has rarely sounded stronger-achingly pure on ”Heal the World,” menacing on the creepy ”Give In to Me” (his best-ever shot at hard rock), and at times, deeper and adult.

But even the most acute studio skills can’t compensate for the hole-in-the-soul that haunts the album. The love songs replace warmth with an unsettling sense of hostility, and even Jackson’s pop-gospel songs sound forlorn, not uplifting. Looking to connect to a mass pop audience that may no longer be his, living on a planet that refuses to live in harmony, he constructs a world on Dangerous in which neither love nor God provides much hope. For the first time, Michael Jackson is caught up in problems that not even a good beat can solve. B-

  • Music