So today marks the release of Michael Jackson’s first “real” posthumous record, Michael, and the verdict is predictably mixed. It’s certainly not the tour-de-force he was rumored to be working on in the years leading up to his death (high profile collaborations, for example with will.i.am and Ne-Yo, are nowhere to be found), but it is also not without its charms. In fact, if you can overlook the god-awful opening “Hold My Hand” (really an Akon solo track with Michael as guest), you’ll find some near-prime MJ. Chief among them, “Behind the Mask,” a smoking collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto that apparently dates back to the 70s, and despite the puzzling sax flourishes, serves as a great reminder of Michael’s dance-floor dominance. Then there’s the terrific single “Breaking the News” which some reviewers have dismissed as one of the ill-considered paranoid anti-tabloid rants that characterized his later output, coming across as a retread Dangerous-style “new jack swing” and ringing false in light of his death. They seem to ignore that 1. paranoia has always been a goldmine of inspiration for him and 2. Dangerous was awesome. Plus, the hook is enormous! “Monster” covers similar thematic ground and is only a few steps behind, quality-wise. “Hollywood Tonight,” on the other hand, does have the makings of a bonafide MJ-anthem, but ultimately comes off as too much of a work-in-progress. That said, “(I Like) The Way That You Love Me” is pure melody-Michael, very much in the Invincible vein, proving once again that when he scaled back a little, he could still deliver top-notch RnB.
As far as the ballads are concerned, which were always where his tackier side reared its head, things are a bit dodgier. “Keep Your Head Up” is the “Heal the World” here, as catchy as it is insipid, and “Best of Joy” is almost unlistenable. Yet “Much Too Soon,” a Thriller outtake, is Michael at his sweetest and most stripped down.
All in all, it’s a fun, if safe release. Despite some solid additions to the catalog, one gets the strong feeling that the studio is holding back, big-time (10 tracks?!). But that’s ultimately moot – everything is going to come out eventually, and we can compile our dream records then. The real takeaway here is that the first archival release is out of the way, and it could have been a LOT worse.