Off the Wall
Released: August 1979
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 169
Certified 6x Platinum: 6/1/88
Like many an aging child star, Michael Jackson has had to grow up gracefully in public in order to survive. Until now, he's understandably clung to the remnants of his original Peter Pan of Motown image while cautiously considering the role of the young prince. Off the Wall marks Jackson's first decisive step toward a mature show-business personality, and except for some so-so material, it's a complete success.
A slick, sophisticated R&B-pop showcase with a definite disco slant, Off the Wall presents Michael Jackson as the Stevie Wonder of the Eighties. This resemblance is strongest on "I Can't Help It" (cowritten by Wonder), in which Jackson's vocal syncopation is reminiscent of the master's breathless, dreamy stutter.
Throughout, Jackson's feathery-timbred tenor is extraordinarily beautiful. It slides smoothly into a startling falsetto that's used very daringly. The singer's ultradramatic phrasing, which takes huge emotional risks and wins every time, wrings the last drop of pathos from Tom Bahler's tear-jerker, "She's Out of My Life." "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" (written and coproduced by Jackson) is one of a handful of recent disco releases that works both as a dance track and as an aural extravaganza comparable to Earth, Wind and Fire's "Boogie Wonderland." The rest of the dance music touches several grooves, from jazzy South American to mainstream pop funk.
A triumph for producer Quincy Jones as well as for Michael Jackson, Off the Wall represents discofied post-Motown glamour at its classiest.
- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 11/1/79.
Jackson's first solo album in several years mixes disco-rhythm material similar to the Jacksons' "Shake Your Body" with midtempo ballads reminiscent of the singer's early '70s pop and soul hits. But the emphasis is definitely on brassy arrangements: the Seawind Horns appear on all the cuts. Jackson's bell-clear vocal style is the album's most recognizable hook, as he tackles songs by Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Carole Bayer Sager, Tom Bahler and Rod Temperton (Heatwave). Best cuts: "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Rock With You," "Get On The Floor," "Off The Wall," "Girlfriend," "It's The Falling In Love."
- Billboard, 1979.
In which fast-stepping Michael J. and quick-witted Quincy J. fashion the dance groove of the year. Michael's vocabulary of grunts, squeals, hiccups, moans, and asides is a vivid reminder that he's grown up, and the title tune suggests that maybe what makes Stevie Wonder (who contributes a good ballad) such an oddball isn't his genius or even his blindness so much as the fact that since childhood his main contact with the real world has been on stage and in bed. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
The soulful Englishman penned the title smash and the US number one "Rock With You." The artist himself wrote "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," a six-minute workout that made number one itself when severely edited. An offbeat top ten hit was provided by "She's Out of My Life," a Tom Bahler ballad that reduced the singer to tears in the studio.
Quincy Jones suggested Jackson sing "Girlfriend" by Paul McCartney without realizing the Wing had thought it perfect for Michael when recording it himself for London Town.
When this album won only one Grammy, that in a Rhythm and Blues category, Jackson was upset. "It bothered me," he was quoted as saying, "I cried a lot. My family thought I was going crazy because I was weeping so much. Quincy told me not to worry about it." Jones reassured his charge by pointing out that with eight million copies sold he must have brought a great deal of happiness into the world, and that this was a reward more important than statuettes.
Mentors had suggested Michael wear a tuxedo on the LP cover to show he had matured; the artist's personal touch was to wear glowing socks to show he hadn't become boring.
In 1987, Off the Wall was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #83 rock album of all time.
- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.
With a cast of thousands Michael Jackson set out to conquer the world record market making Off the Wall the biggest selling disc by a black artist (until 1982's Thriller). Jackson cleverly mixes soul music, disco and ballad forms including songs by Carole Bayer Sager, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder to create an album of the widest appeal.
These complex productions are vividly relayed by CD, bettering the vinyl issue for simple transparency and stereo separation in both depth and width. Dry, reverberant string and brass arrangements verge on brightness but, on a neutral sound system, they come over sharp and clear. The recording heard from Compact Disc has an easy and fluid bass quality and a fair dynamic range.
- David Prakel, Rock 'n' Roll on Compact Disc, 1987.
Why has this record, which sold a mere eight million units, lasted better than Thriller, the most popular album in the history of recorded music? Superficially, it's because of the violation by Michael Jackson of the amazing love nearly all lovers of pop music felt for the former child star in that heady period between his performance of "Billie Jean" on the Motown 25 television special and the Don King-supervised announcement of the Victory tour that started the unfixable rupture in the Gloved One's crown. The rote dates on the Victory tour and, more than that, Jackson's reaction to the ramifications of his megasuccess let us down so much that it resulted in a backlash against the music.
But that's not why Thriller doesn't peak as high or as often as its predecessor, Off the Wall. The truth is in the grooves: The greatness of Thriller is based on a mere three outstanding cuts -- "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Billie Jean," and "Beat It," all forward-looking masterpieces that Jackson will probably never surpass. But much of the rest of the record is lightweight -- "The Girl Is Mine," a duet with the former rocker Paul McCartney, is so flimsy it evaporates before the first of its profoundly annoying choruses. What was brilliant on Thriller was unprecedented stuff; but there wasn't enough of it to sustain the entire LP.
That's not the case with Off the Wall, the 1979 album that served as Jackson's declaration of independence from the Motown production mill that had begun to strangle him, as it had many other gifted performers before him. It also remains -- with the exception of his three breakthrough cuts on Thriller -- the only time he has presented himself believably as an adult. (This was long before his companions were more likely to be animals or child actors who were unlikely to truly challenge him as a human being.) The record is full of phenomenally sensual, even sexual, performances, from the "You make me feel like... You make me feel like... Woo!" explosion that kicks off "Don't Stop Til' You Get Enough" to Jackson's triumph over conventionality in the final "Burn This Disco Out."
In terms of willful taboo violations, Jackson is of course no Prince, whose contemporaneous Dirty Mind expanded funk and rock into territory that would make even Jerry Lee Lewis blush, but Jackson brought to Off the Wall vocal tricks that no pop singer, before or after, could have imagined. His tenor flies all over the place (evne semi-rapping a bit on "Get on the Floor"), but the most expressive vocal moments here are wordless -- cries, shouts, exultations, sighs that speak volumes. There's minimal artifice here, and not merely because Jackson had not begun his tabloid-intensive, self-destructive addiction to plastic surgery. "She's Out of My Life" is a believable ballad about the breakup of a long-term relationship from a man who claims he has never had one, and producer Quincy Jones helps Jackson speak clearly and wildly without resorting to the smooth tricks that clutter Thriller, Bad, and the other ten thousand records Jones has produced since Off the Wall. Jackson's emotions triumph over his image on Off the Wall, and for more than any reason that's why this record is his most essential.
- Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time, 1992.
If you were listening to the Jacksons's Destiny from the previous year, maybe you were less surprised than many that Michael Jackson was capable of making an album this accomplished and assured. From the first moments, he seems bursting with the wide range of music included, from the first side's clutch of irresistible dance tracks ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Rock with You," "Working Day and Night") to the light pop and ballads ("She's out of My Life," "Off the Wall") of Side 2. Throughout, Jackson's flexible tenor coos and growls by turns, always goosing the songs along. Deservedly a massive hit, this is less dated today than much of the dance music of that era. * * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
As the record that first showed Jackson's promise as a solo artist, Off The Wall lets the singer stretch beyond his teenybopper image. "Rock With You" is a slick, sensual piece of R&B-tinged pop, while "Wanna Be Starting Something" seems tailor-made for the kind of adult-oriented dance clubs that would never go near a Jackson 5 single. Best of all, by welding impressive, inventive production with solid songs, the pair showed hints of what a mature Jackson might be capable of. * * * * 1/2
- Eric Deggans, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Off The Wall is a 10-million-plus-selling, no-holds-barred call to party. Amazingly, it never made the top slot on the charts in the U.K. or America. The breathless yelps that were to become a trademark surface here for the first time as, against a background of irresistibly funky music courtesy of top session musicians assembled by veteran producer Quincy Jones, Jackson storms the disco. The first five tracks burst with brass stabs, Latino percussion and fat disco beats. The hedonism lets up briefly, most notably with the reflective "She's Out Of My Life" -- a vocal aching with emotion, accompanied mostly by solo electric piano. But the celebratory mood is back in the house by the triumphant closer, "Burn This Disco Out." With Off The Wall, Michael Jackson became the first solo artist to have four hit singles from one album. The scene was set for his next release -- Thriller -- which outsold everything. Disco in excelsis.
- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.
MJ makes everybody want to rock with him on the album that started it all. Sweet, soulful singing and emotions delivered over smooth pop beats with disco and R&B grooves drove his ascent into the stratosphere. This is the Michael we loved growing up, before the plastic surgery, the pet monkey, the entourage, when he was just going solo, so there's a "back when" nostalgia to it. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
Off the Wall was voted the 36th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.
- Raquel Bruno, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.
"The ballads were what made Off the Wall a Michael Jackson album," Jackson remembered of his big solo splash. "I'd done ballads with [my] brothers, but they had never been too enthusiastic about them and did them more as a concession to me than anything else." The heartbreaker here is "She's Out of My Life," where Jackson actually broke down and cried at the end of the take, feeling like one of the loneliest people in the world. But the record also features undeniable up-tempo tracks such as "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" -- state-of-the-art dance music in 1979, now a poignant snapshot of a time before Jackson was a national punch line.
Off the Wall was chosen as the 68th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
Despite appearing at the end of the decade, Off The Wall is one of the seminal albums of the 1970s. Coming off the back of the disco craze it is also perhaps one of the slickest pop/dance albums ever recorded, thanks in large part to the efforts of producer Quincy Jones, whose partnership with Jackson helped create the wonderfully full disco/funk sound that pervades much of the record. And while it may not have spawned as many Number One singles -- only "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" in the US -- as his later hit album Thriller, it nevertheless marked the point at which Jackson's solo career took an extremely sharp upward curve and the artist became the most recognizable singer on the planet. The album "only" managed to reach Number Three on the US album charts and Number Five in the UK, but it laid the foundations for the creative purple patch that was to carry Jackson through the next five years -- and trigger the media frenzy that follows him to this day.
With songs written by Jackson, Rod Templeton, David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager and others, Off The Wall spawned four Top Ten single hits on both sides of the Atlantic, including the ballad "She's Out Of My Life."
As of 2004, Off The Wall was the #19 best-selling album of the 70s.
- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.
Unlike Stevie Wonder, who shifted seamlessly from child phenomenon to adult star, Michael Jackson endured a tricky musical adolescence. By 1979 he had not had a solo hit in seven long years and the 19-year-old was desperate to find a new musical mentor.
While rehearsing for the all-black musical The Wiz in 1977, Jackson slyly asked jazz and funk mastermind Quincy Jones if he could recommend a producer. Jones volunteered himself, building a studio band around two of his acts -- the Brothers Johnson and Rufus -- along with session musicians including Stevie Wonder's keyboard player, Greg Philanganes. Together, they created an intricate fusion of razor-sharp disco beats, state-of-the-art funk, heartbreaking ballads, and clean pop hooks that reinvented the sonic vocabulary of R&B.
There are some premier songwriters on board -- Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Bacharach's partner Carole Bayer Sager, Brit soul guru Rod Temperton -- but the centerpiece of the album is Michael's jittery, frenetic opening track "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Jackson's falsetto hollers and frisky yelps serve as an obbligato to the lead line, punctuating Ben Wright's thrilling string arrangement and Jerry Hey's tight horn charts. Other tracks replicate this triumphalism, but even schmaltz like "She's Out Of My Life" is so simple and unaffected that you are left weeping with Michael by the song's end.
It sold 12 million copies and Quincy Jones' overhaul established a precedent for other artists seeking to escape the teen band ghetto. But none can match the sheer genius of Off The Wall, an album that serves as the Rosetta Stone for all subsequent R&B.
- John Lewis, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Transcendent singles "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" provided the perfect union of pure pop genius and disco glitter -- and indisputable proof that MJ was plenty thrilling before Thriller.
Off the Wall was chosen as the 44th greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.
- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.
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