On "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", the six minute opening track on Thriller, Michael Jackson's synergy with co-producer Quincy Jones arguably reaches its pinnacle.
The crispness of Bruce Swedien's engineering combined with the eerily prodigious rhythm arrangements of the man himself ignite the opening bars with a bass drum, remarkably finessed high-hats, an ominous bass line that sets your feet on fire and a call-and-answer between a funk guitar and a brilliantly subtle, percussive vocal riff by Jackson. Then Jackson slides his chorus in with an animalistic "oooooh".
The chorus is catchy but the verses star here, again because of Jackson's vocal class. He uses his range, his trademarked hiccup technique pioneered several years earlier, and an especial emphasis on certain syllables to infuse the song with a pained flavour despite its disco-funk and eminent danceability. His emotion is raw, open and palpably vulnerable.
Lyrically, the song is also dark, with references to claustrophobia, pain being "thunder", "razor" tongues, "hustling" and his interlocutor being a "vegetable" who is fed off. Jackson originally wrote the song for his sister La Toya to record. It addresses adverse press speculation and gossip. One of the best lyrics is the opener to his first verse: “I took my baby to the doctor/with a fever but nothing he found/by the time this hit the street/they said she had a breakdown.” He even references the gold digging prototype - “Billie Jean” - of the eponymous single's fame.
After an interlude where zombie voices overdub each other, a rhythmic funk guitar solo enters and Jackson’s cries become increasingly urgent. The bass drum and handclaps impart a sense of desperation. Finally, Jackson's voice emerges triumphantly from his own anger in joyous tandem with Jerry Hey’s horns and the backing singers' famous "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa" Duala/Swahili chant, lifted from Manu Dibango's pioneering disco track “Soul Makossa“. “No one can hurt me now/because I know what's true/and I believe in me/so you believe in you” cries Jackson, then: “Help me sing it!”
Noteworthy is the multi-faceted percussion of Paulinho da Costa. Without his and Jackson's sense of timing, this ambitious piece of music could easily have come undone.
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin’" is a sharp, arresting opener, brashly announcing that something special is afoot. The rest is history.
Writer: Michael Jackson
Producers: Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson