To milk an artist for every penny they’re worth even after they’ve kicked the bucket is, in itself, inconsiderate and a tad cruel. And in the most extreme cases, where record companies exhume an index of shoddy demo tapes and unused B-sides to make up the numbers for a cheap money-spinner, it’s downright deplorable. There are artists whose legacies have been treated with some respect (take Kurt Cobain, whose posthumous back catalogue is limited only to live albums and a handful of demos that were released untreated and untouched), but given that Michael is being billed as the first of 10 planned albums to be released beyond the grave bearing Michael Jackson’s name, it doesn’t seem the King of Pop will be afforded that courtesy.
Michael is a bit like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death (only with “cha’mones” rather than roundhouse kicks), a vision left incomplete by the untimely demise of its major creative influence. So, a motley crew of producers are tasked with smoothing the edges on Jackson’s unfinished project. Do they do a good job? Well, when someone like will.i.am goes on record as saying something is tasteless, it should speak volumes. The album opens not with one of Jackson’s notorious vocal tics, but a hideously Auto-Tuned Akon, who hollers “Akon and MJ” on the unbalanced duet “Hold My Hand.” So far, so tasteless: That Jackson is reduced to second billing on his own curtain-raiser underlines the fact this shouldn’t be considered a canonical Michael Jackson release.
Given these songs have been cobbled together from a hodgepodge of sources (some dating as far back as Thriller), there’s a lack of continuity both sonically and thematically. On one hand, we have the token balladry, and during “Best of Joy,” “Keep Your Head Up,” and especially “Much Too Soon,” we’re reminded that Jackson’s delicate, almost frail falsetto is a beautiful match for syrupy string samples and tender acoustic melodies. “Much Too Soon” brings the album to a perfect close with an accordion break and the late singer’s mournful “I guess I learned my lesson much too soon.” Consider all heartstrings hereby tugged, albeit a little cheaply. There’s nothing groundbreaking about these compositions by any means, but simply hearing Jackson gently crooning over them is rather exquisite, and he sounds vocally in fine form.
While the ballad hasn’t really made any significant evolutionary strides since Jackson’s heyday, it’s clear that the formula for the danceable pop ditty has been reinvented umpteen times. Consequently, Michael rarely serves up anything that will have its listeners making a b-line for the dance floor. “Monster” is weighed down by an unnecessary rap by the increasingly unnecessary 50 Cent, “Hollywood Tonight” and “Breaking News” hindered by their rallying against fame and maudlin poor-me agenda, while “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day” is a gutless rock track with dull guest spots from Lenny Kravitz and Dave Grohl. “(I Like) The Way You Love Me,” though, is a sprightly pop number cut from the same cloth as “Remember the Time,” and seems content to conjure memories of vintage Jackson rather than appropriating him for 2010.
Then, just as you’re about to consign Michael to decided mediocrity, along comes the Thriller outtake “Behind the Mask.” Driven by warped synths and robotic blips and bleeps, this bout of pseudo-futuristic pop boasts Jackson’s finest vocal performance on the album. Complete with all his fêted vocal tics and an inimitable swagger, “Behind the Mask” is an unassailable highlight that reminds us that Jackson, as an artist and a performer, was truly a unique talent.