But the bottom line is this: Somehow, in the midst of the circus that surrounded him, Jackson managed to leave behind one of the most impressive catalogs in the history of music. Rarely has an artist been so adept at communicating the vitality and vulnerability of the human condition: the exhilaration, yearning, despair, and transcendence. Indeed, in Jackson's case he literally embodied the music. It charged through him like an electric current. He mediated it through every means at his disposal--his voice, his body, his dances, films, words, technology and performances. His work was multi-media in a way never before experienced.
This is why the tendency of many critics to judge his work against circumscribed, often white, Euro-American musical standards is such a mistake. Jackson never fit neatly into categories and defied many of the expectations of rock/alternative enthusiasts. He was rooted deeply in the African-American tradition, which is crucial to understanding his work. But the hallmark of his art is fusion, the ability to stitch together disparate styles, genres and mediums to create something entirely new.
If critics simply hold Jackson's lyrics on a sheet of paper next to those of Bob Dylan, then, they will likely find Jackson on the short end. It's not that Jackson's lyrics aren't substantive (on the HIStory album alone, he tackles racism, materialism, fame, corruption, media distortion, ecological destruction, abuse, and alienation). But his greatness is in his ability to augment his words vocally, visually, physically, and sonically, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Listen, for example, to his non-verbal vocalizations--the cries, exclamations, grunts, gasps, and improvisatory vernacular--in which Jackson communicates beyond the strictures of language. Listen to his beat boxing and scatting; how he stretches or accents words; his James Brown-like staccato facility; the way his voice moves from gravelly to smooth to sublime; the passionate calls and responses; the way he soars just as naturally with gospel choirs and electric guitars.
Listen to his virtuosic rhythms and rich harmonies; the nuanced syncopation and signature bass lines; the layers of detail and archive of unusual sounds. Go beyond the usual classics, and play songs like "Stranger in Moscow," "I Can't Help It ," "Liberian Girl ," "Who Is It," and "In the Back." Note the range of subject matter, the spectrum of moods and textures, the astounding variety (and synthesis) of styles. On the Dangerous album alone, Jackson moves from New Jack Swing to classical, hip hop to gospel, R&B to industrial, funk to rock. It was music without borders or barriers, and it resonated across the globe.