It’s hard to imagine an album that sold two million copies, spawned 3 (actually, four) top 40 singles and was an international success being underrated, but George Michael’s sophomore release, “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” is a gem that has long been overlooked by the general public. The letdown was inevitable after George became a worldwide phenomenon with “Faith”. The album officially announced George as an icon, not as just the lead singer from Wham! For a time, it was a widely held belief that George placed in the pantheon of pop legends that included Michael, Madonna and Prince. “Faith” was nothing less than a juggernaut. Loved by fans and critics alike, it sold over 10 million copies and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. It spawned six Top Ten pop singles, with another three crossing over to hit the Top Ten on the R&B chart. Additionally, “Faith” broke new ground by becoming the first album by a white artist to hit Number One on Billboard’s R&B Albums list. For a brief moment, the former chubby kid with the unibrow was the biggest artist in the world.

The cover of George Michael\'s \"Listen Without Prejudice\" (1990)

George, to his credit, immediately realized that wasn’t what he wanted. In a move that seemed utterly pretentious at the time but seems somewhat noble in retrospect, he decided that “Prejudice” would be judged solely on the merits of it’s musical content. He didn’t appear on the record’s front cover (actually, neither did the album’s title…it was affixed to the front of the disc on a sticker), he did no pre-release promotion for the album, and he refused to appear in the album’s videos. Pretty ballsy for such a big name to pull such an obvious retreat, and the move was viewed as petulant by some (Frank Sinatra publicly chastised him), but if you did what the title suggested, you were rewarded by the work of an increasingly mature songwriter who had very obvious reservations when it came to playing the fame game.

One thing you immediately notice is that it’s nowhere near as “black” sounding as “Faith” was. George publicly expressed his reverence for R&B musicians like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, but was stung by criticism from artists (Gladys Knight being the most vocal) who were miffed about him receiving accolades in the soul arena, including two American Music Awards-for favorite Soul/R&B Album and favorite Soul/R&B male artist. The album took it’s musical cues from a variety of different artists and genres. The ghost of John Lennon is all over the socially conscious “Praying for Time”, while the jangly “Heal the Pain” is a tip of the hat to Paul McCartney (Michael later re-recorded the song as a duet with Macca). The mid-tempo “Waiting for the Day” quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” while juxtaposing acoustic guitars against the classic James Brown “Funky Drummer” loop (a practice that became standard procedure half a decade later for femme singer-songwriters like Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow), while the haunting “Cowboys & Angels” has a strong jazz influence, complete with a nimble bassline played by George himself.

Lyrically, the album is way more serious than it’s predecessor, and the politically-minded “Praying for Time” and the war-based ballad “Mother’s Pride” both became de facto themes for the 1990-1991 Gulf War (much to George’s consternation). George only truly lets go on the album’s final full track, the brassy, reggae-kissed “Soul Free”. For those not used to pop music asking them to think a little, the seriousness of this album was a bit of a shock.

While “Praying” was the album’s #1 hit, “Freedom ’90” has turned out to be “Listen Without Prejudice”‘s most fondly remembered song. At the very least, people remember the video, which featured supermodels Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. It also featured the ceremonial burning (literally) of the iconic leather jacket George wore in the “Faith” video. The song is very obviously serving notice that there was another person behind the image, and with two decades retrospect, it’s quite easy to read the song’s lyrics as a coming out of sorts.

“Faith” may have had more pop thrills, but “Prejudice” might be the more fulfilling album. Unfortunately, the album didn’t set American charts ablaze, which led to much bad blood betwen the artist and his label, Columbia Records. George’s dissatisfaction with his label’s promotional efforts led to a lengthy and costly lawsuit that wound up costing George over half a decade of his recording career, an M.I.A. period that he never quite recovered from. While 1996’s “Older” went Platinum, George was almost immediately relegated to has-been status (although he continued to sell records by the truckload in his native U.K. and elsewhere around the world). Of course, the infamous bathroom incident followed and pretty much torpedoed what was left of his American career (probably because George remained fairly unapologetic about the whole thing…Americans love nothing more than some good ol’ grovelling). His studio work since has been spotty, both in terms of frequency and quality, although he’s undergoing a moderate resurgence in popularity thanks to the TV series “Eli Stone” and a current summer tour, his first in America since 1991. However history winds up positioning him, though, there’s no question that “Listen Without Prejudice” is a thoughtful, mature album that deserved a lot more props than it initially received.