The adult solo career of Michael Jackson began thirty-five years ago this week, when Off The Wall hit store shelves.

Sure, Michael was already a superstar with a decade’s worth of hits when Off The Wall was released. But even though he’d crested the top 10 just months before with the big Jacksons comeback hit, “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground,)” I feel as though Off The Wall was the moment when people stopped, listened and took Michael seriously as opposed to still thinking of him as the chubby-cheeked sprite leading The Jackson Five.

OTWIf a Michael Jackson album can be called underrated (and if an album that’s sold in excess of 7 million copies can be called underrated,) Off The Wall would be my pick for the album that most deserves that distinction. Dwarfed by the massive success enjoyed by Thriller, its successor, folks tend to gloss over the fact that Off The Wall was a monster in its own right. It was the first solo album to spin off four top ten singles (a record that Michael himself broke.) It was 1980’s #3 pop album and #1 soul album, according to Billboard. It won the American Music Award for Favorite Soul/R&B Album in 1980 and 1981. Until Michael himself (once again) broke the record, Off The Wall was the best-selling album by a Black artist, although that distinction came with a huge asterisk (Motown Records didn’t allow the RIAA to certify any of its albums Gold or Platinum until the late Seventies.)

Even if you took away the great commercial success Off The Wall achieved, it still stands out. Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson were a match made in heaven. After spending time in New York filming The Wiz and experiencing the nightlife during the peak of the disco era, Michael knew what it took to make butts wiggle. Via a lengthy resume that included being the first black executive at a major label, Quincy knew what it took to make Michael’s lyrical and musical concepts timeless, and he also knew to surround the singer with great songs. Heatwave’s Rod Temperton would be key in the execution of this concept-either he or Michael wrote all of Off The Wall‘s most lasting songs, with the notable exception of Stevie Wonder’s transcendent “I Can’t Help It.” As a team, they created genius-an album that successfully integrated disco, funk and pop, and meshed Michael’s youthful exuberance (how awesome is it to hear Michael laugh towards the end of “Get On The Floor”?) with the beyond-his-years showbiz maturity he possessed.

On a personal level, Off The Wall might be the most important album to have ever passed my ears. No, it’s not the best album I’ve ever heard (although it’s in the top ten, if not the top five…and is arguably better than Thriller.) But it is the album that kicked off a lifelong love and appreciation for the power of music. It was the first album that was ever bought specifically for me, even if I didn’t pay for it with my own money. I was 7 years old at the time (some point in early 1984.) I (and the world) was Michael-crazy at that point, but my appreciation for Off The Wall has only grown over the years. It’s the rare album that I can listen to until the cows come home and not get tired of. Even after what must be tens of thousands of listens, there are still nuances I pick up: the spectacular background vocal arrangement of “Rock With You,” for example.

It goes without saying that you can hear echoes of Off The Wall in much of today’s music. I’ve probably said it myself 50 times in the past five years alone: Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown and a host of others owe a debt of gratitude to not only Michael, but Quincy, Rod Temperton, engineer Bruce Swedien and the entire Off The Wall team. Check out this Ne-Yo track (produced by Salaam Remi and featured on his Grammy-nominated 2013 album) and tell me that this wouldn’t have fit perfectly in between, say, “Off The Wall” and “Girlfriend.”

I’m struggling to think of something new to say about an album I’ve eulogized many times over, and maybe there’s nothing left to say except that Off The Wall should be in your record collection (regardless of what side of the musical fence you find yourself on.) 35 years later, in a world that’s only gotten crazier, Michael and co. still manage to put a smile on my face and get my feet in motion in the most trying of times. And for that, I am most thankful.

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