"In the three years since Michael Jackson's first solo album, Off the Wall, sold 7 million copies and spawned four hit singles, black music has veered away from the danceable but ultraslick style that Off the Wall epitomized. From Prince to Marvin Gave, from rap to Rick James, black artists have incorporated increasingly mature and adventurous themes–culture, sex, politics–into grittier, gutsier music. So when Jackson's first solo single since 1979 turned out to be a wimpoid MOR ballad with the refrain "the doggone girl is mine," sung with a tame Paul McCartney, it looked like the train had left the station without him.
But the superficiality of that damnably catchy hit belies the surprising substance of Thriller. Rather than reheating Off the Wall's agreeably mindless funk, Jackson has cooked up a zesty LP whose uptempo workouts don't obscure its harrowing, dark messages. Particularly on Jackson's own compositions, Thriller's tense, nearly obsessive sound complements lyrics that delineate a world that has put the twenty-four-year-old on the defensive. "They're out to get you, better leave while you can Don't wanna be a boy, you wanna be a man." It's been a challenging time for Jackson – his parents may separate, he's been involved in a paternity claim – and he's responded to those challenges head-on. He's dropped the boyish falsetto that sparked his hits from "I Want You Back" to "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and chosen to address his tormentors in a full, adult voice with a feisty determination that is tinged by sadness. Jackson's new attitude gives Thriller a deeper, if less visceral, emotional urgency than any of his previous work, and marks another watershed in the creative development of this prodigiously talented performer.
Take "Billie Jean," a lean, insistent funk number whose message couldn't be more blunt: "She says I am the one/But the kid is not my son." The party spirit that suffused Off the Wall has landed him in trouble, and he tempers that exuberance with suspicion. "What do you mean I am the one," he quizzically asks his femme fatale, "who will dance on the floor?" It's a sad, almost mournful song, but a thumping resolve underlies his feelings: "Billie Jean is not my lover" is incessantly repeated as the song fades out."