LOS ANGELES -- It has been four years since his last album, "Bad," and nearly nine years since the release of "Thriller," the best-selling recording in history. And as Michael Jackson bursts back into the nation's musical consciousness this month with a new album amid a wave of carefully crafted hype, he must prove that he remains at the cutting edge of song and dance while defending his position as the world's pre-eminent pop star.
"This is the most important record in Michael Jackson's career," said Benny Medina, the director of artists and repertory at Warner Brothers Records, a label competing with Jackson's record company, Sony. Matching the success of his "Thriller" and "Bad" albums is "the most difficult challenge faced by any artist in the world," he added.
Jackson's new album, "Dangerous," will not go on sale for two more weeks, but the marketing campaign behind it is already well under way. A 30-second commercial for the album, directed by David Lynch, has been running for several weeks on television and in movie theaters. The album's first single, "Black or White," was delivered to radio stations last week and to record stores Monday.
And tomorrow night, following "The Simpsons," the Fox network will broadcast the video for "Black or White," an elaborate 11-minute film directed by John Landis, with MTV and Black Entertainment Television showing it on cable.
Sunday night, Fox will broadcast a half-hour special about Jackson's career, starting with his emergence as a child star with the Jackson Five in the 1960s.
The multimillion-dollar promotional splash surrounding the album reflects Jackson's enormous success during the last decade as an entertainer whose appeal transcended racial lines and musical genres.
But it also suggests the size of the entertainment industry's expectations for "Dangerous," and the risks inherent in the precedent-shattering six-album deal that Jackson signed with the Sony Corp. and its recording and movie-making divisions.
Sony will pay Jackson, 33, at least $50 million, and probably several times that over the next decade or two, depending on how well the albums sell, making the deal by far the most lucrative yet in the recording business.
Sony executives admit to being agitated, if for no other reason than that Jackson, who is known for fanatical obsession with every last note of his recordings, did not deliver the closely guarded album until the end of last month.
The delay threatened Epic's plans to manufacture, package and ship millions of compact disks, cassettes and LPs to stores around the world in time for the Nov. 26 release.
But behind the technical concerns of getting the album out lies a more fundamental worry: whether Michael Jackson can ever come close to duplicating the magic he created with "Thriller," which in selling 48 million copies worldwide made the entertainer a mesmerizing if enigmatic cultural icon.
Coming at a time when music video was just taking off, "Thriller" also spawned a series of hugely popular videos that showed off Jackson's dazzling dancing skills, gave his music widespread exposure to the predominantly white MTV audience and proved that video was an invaluable tool in selling records.
It was perhaps inevitable that "Bad," his 1987 follow-up, would be a letdown for Jackson. "Bad" sold 25 million copies, making it a blockbuster by any standard other than "Thriller." But the album's music seemed to many critics to be largely derivative of "Thriller" -- both were produced by Quincy Jones -- and it led to speculation within the record ing industry that Jackson had lost his creative edge.
"The times may have changed but he's changed with them," said David Geffen, the pop-music impresario, who has close ties to Jackson but no business relationship. "Remember that he's been doing this since he was 6 years old, and he's stayed on the money for a long time."
On "Dangerous," Jackson opted to produce most of the album's songs himself in collaboration with three others. Among them is Teddy Riley, the writer, producer and performer who is credited with inventing the dance-funk-rap style known as new jack swing. Riley co-produced seven songs on the album.
Some songs reflect the influence of the new musical styles: "Black or White," which is about racial harmony, contains a rap section along with a performance by the hard-rocking guitarist Slash, from Guns 'n' Roses.
People who have heard the album say it features provocative songs ("In the Closet") and the themes of fear and loneliness that have long permeated Jackson's work, and a song in Jackson's we-are-the-world idiom, "Heal the World."
Jackson wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 14 songs, including "Black or White." The songs finally selected for the album -- 76 minutes of music -- were culled from among dozens Jackson recorded over the last year.
For all the changes in his music, Jackson continues to be something of a mystery to all but his closest associates.