When Will.I.Am of all people is denouncing your project on the grounds of taste and authenticity, you know you’re on shaky ground. When your lead single is a duet with Akon, you should probably just pack up and go home. Michael Jackson couldn’t do any of these things of course, because Michael Jackson is dead.
When you go in to listen to the posthumous album of unreleased Michael Jackson songs you’re met with a 10-page document that painstakingly details the narrative of how this record is authentic, genuine and tastefully in tune with the album Jackson was already planning. But really. Nobody treated this poor, desperate fucker with any respect in the later years of his life. Why would that vultures act any different now he’s not even around to have a say?
Then you actually hear the thing and you’re met with a bizarre rush of reassurance in human decency. Oh, it isn’t really very good, don’t be under illusions of that. But compared with the unnecessary, inauthentic and insulting mess it could have been, and judged against the level at which, say, Tupac Shakur and Freddie Mercury’s graves have been danced on, ‘Michael’ can actually be considered something of a win.
The songs here are actually complete songs. Not discarded offcuts recklessly soldered together with a few guest raps to cover the joins, but full compositions sung all the way through by Actual Michael Jackson. And evidently, his voice had endured. Sure, the vocals are treated to (excuse the phrasing) within an inch of their lives. But the gleaming falsetto, the rock howl and propulsive beatboxing are all, to different extents, intact.
Thirdly, the robotic R&B that defines ‘Michael’ is probably, more or less like what Michael Jackson would have been wanting to do in 2010. Amazing as it would have been to hear him toe-to-toe with Kanye, Minaj and Rihanna, it was never going to happen because he’s chosen Will.I.Am and Akon. And most of these songs are up to his more latterday standard. Just so, it’s a myth that he ever completely lost it: even ‘Invincible’ had ‘You Rock My World’ and ‘Butterflies’ on it.
And even Akon can’t completely ruin the single ‘Hold My Hand’, a tender mid-paced love song in the vein of ‘Remember The Time’, while ‘Best Of Joy’ and ‘(I Like) The Way You Love Me’ cover similar classy/boring mid-tempo R&B territory… ‘Monster’ revisits ‘Smooth Criminal’ territory only to be ruined by an inappropriate rap from 50 Cent, while the worst thing you can say about ‘Hollywood Tonight’ is that its catchy signature gets annoying after a while.
‘Keep Your Head Up’ is sentimental mush that makes up for its paucity of tune by piling on more and more strings and gospel, and ‘Breaking News’ is appalling, Jackson at his most ‘poor me’ unfortunate over a mess of confused beats.
But then something remarkable happens. You get to track nine, ‘Behind The Mask’ and it’s an absolute revelation, a swirl of psychedelic, orchestra-twinged R&B. Jackson howls a solid-gold melody at his fearsome best, and blippy production and robotic backing vocals dancing behind it. It could sit quite happily on ‘Dangerous’. It is actually brilliant. And then there’s ‘Much Too Soon’, a delicate, pared-down ballad that dates back to the ‘Thriller’ era, but gets you in the emotion-centres in the way that Jackson uniquely could.
On the balancing strength of those two songs, ‘Michael’ manages to dodge the bullet enough to be kind of enjoyable. But it’s worth remembering that both songs date back to the 1980s. It’s also worth remembering that this is the first in a reported 10-album deal over the next seven years. And if this decent-enough album is the best of the bunch, things are going to get ugly from here on in. Michael has his epitaph now. Tear up that contract, The Jackson Estate. Tear it up now.
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