There's no overarching theme, no consistent sound, no evidence of Jackson's meticulous tinkering to make every note, every second, exactly what he wanted. But maybe that's a good thing.
When you're the King of Pop, your subjects naturally bow to your will - an issue that more or less held Jackson back since "Bad," when he parted ways with the great producer Quincy Jones. In the tragic circumstances surrounding "Michael," pulled together quickly in the months after Jackson's untimely death last year, we get to see how the King of Pop would fare if his collaborators had more equal footing.
The answer: Pretty well.
Though Jackson had been working on the follow-up to 2001's "Invincible" for years, he wasn't close to finishing it, especially after he shifted his focus to mounting his "This Is It" tour. Judging from what Jackson left behind, the comeback he so desperately desired was so close.
It could have come from the remarkable "Behind the Mask," where Jackson took a synth-pop sample from the Yellow Magic Orchestra, wrote his own lyrics to it and surrounded it with the Europop beat that has invaded the American pop charts.
It could have come from "Keep Your Head Up," the inspirational slice of early-Aughts R&B that came from his collaboration with Eddie Cascio and James Porte when he was living with the Cascios in New Jersey in 2007. "Keep Your Head Up," which is Jackson's most gospel-influenced track since "Man in the Mirror," is even more timely now than when he wrote it, with its discussion of economic struggles and trying to make ends meet.
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Or it could have come from "Monster," Jackson's stab at hip-hop featuring a verse from 50 Cent that the rapper recorded this year. Along with the album's first single, "Hold My Hand," his collaboration with Akon, "Monster" is the song that sounds the most like Jackson, even including backing vocals he sang through PVC pipe to get just the right monstrous effect.
Also written in New Jersey, "Monster" - which starts out with a nice bit of Jackson beatboxing - is just crying out for a mash-up with Kanye West's "Monster." It is one of two songs on "Michael" that talks about a weariness of Hollywood and the paparazzi, continuing the theme started in "Hollywood Tonight," which was recorded during the "Invincible" sessions nearly a decade ago.
The songs' varying time frames make "Michael" so unusual. The touching ballad "Best of Joy" was one of the final songs Jackson worked on - he planned to finish it while he was in London last year for the
"This Is It" concerts. The ballad "Much Too Soon" was written around the time of "Thriller," nearly three decades ago, but was not released until now.
On the sweet "(I Like) The Way You Love Me," which was released as a demo version on "Ultimate Collection" in 2004, Jackson sounds innocent again - as if all the criminal trials, health problems and constant scrutiny never happened. It's a touching moment, the musical equivalent of a clean slate. But the song also highlights one of the album's problems.
Though the album's numerous producers give an interesting range of viewpoints on Jackson's music, "Michael" also releases bits that Jackson probably never would have allowed.
Toward the end of "The Way You Love Me," there's a loop that sounds like Jackson's voice is manipulated to change keys and repeated multiple times the way amateurs do when they're trying to stretch out a song. It's a flaw so noticeable it jumps out at you immediately and one a perfectionist like Jackson probably would have cut.
The song "Breaking News," which was oddly the first song from the album revealed on Jackson's website, is another track he probably would have held back, especially as he refers to himself numerous times in the third person, using "Michael Jackson" as a ridiculous hook. It's no wonder that after the release of "Breaking News," Jackson's family immediately began questioning whether it was, in fact, his music. (Sony Music says it brought in Jackson's collaborators and musicologists to determine the authenticity of the track and determined it is his voice.)
They shouldn't have worried, though, because the rest of "Michael" is unquestionably Jackson. "Michael" isn't, as many have feared, some sort of project, like recent 2Pac albums, that cobbles together tapes of Jackson's voice and builds new songs around them. These are truly his songs and, for the most part, they couldn't have turned out better if Jackson had finished them himself.
The way Neff-U completes "Best of Joy" is masterful, with Jackson singing "I am forever" as the song fades out.
"Michael" may prove him right on that, considering the loving way others have carried on his legacy.
BOTTOM LINE Carefully keeping the King of Pop's legacy intact
The Jackson 9 - Michael's solo albums
BY GLENN GAMBOA, firstname.lastname@example.org
It seems hard to believe, but "Michael" is only Michael Jackson's 10th solo studio album. Here's a look at the nine that helped build the King of Pop's kingdom:
GOT TO BE THERE (1972, Motown)
THE DEAL Back when he was his generation's Justin Bieber, 13-year-old Michael stepped away from his Jackson 5 brothers for this uneven solo debut. Aside from the yearning title track, it was packed with filler and covers, with varying levels of age-appropriateness and success.
HITS "Got to Be There," "Rockin' Robin," "I Wanna Be Where You Are"
BEN (1972, Motown)
THE DEAL Michael gets a chance to stretch a bit here, from the love song to a rat ("Ben") to protest songs ("People Make the World Go Round"). The arrangements of "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" and "My Girl" suit his changing voice better than the debut.
MUSIC & ME (1973, Motown)
THE DEAL Someone thought it would be a good idea to make 14-year-old Michael sound like he was 41. It failed miserably, though his take on Nat King Cole's "Too Young" is kinda sweet.
HITS "With a Child's Heart"
FOREVER, MICHAEL (1975, Motown)
THE DEAL His voice changed! His adult contemporary arrangements didn't!
HITS "Just a Little Bit You," "We're Almost There"
OFF THE WALL (1979, Epic)
THE DEAL Woo! Jackson's breakthrough as an artist, with producer Quincy Jones' help, is still a thrill, with almost every second packed with something great - from his passionate vocals to his appropriation of disco's beat to brilliantly placed horn blasts and swelling strings. "Thriller" was bigger, but this is his best.
HITS "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," "Off the Wall," "Rock With You," "She's Out of My Life"
THRILLER (1982, Epic)
THE DEAL The album that changed everything. Not just in music and dance, but popular culture, race relations and how America was viewed around the world.
HITS "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "The Girl Is Mine," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," "Human Nature," "P.Y.T.," "Thriller"
BAD (1987, Epic)
THE DEAL Jackson gamely tried some new things. The ballads were strong, while the funky direction of "Smooth Criminal" and "The Way You Make Me Feel" worked. There also were missteps, though. (Oh, "Speed Demon," no.)
HITS "Bad," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Another Part of Me," "Dirty Diana," "Man in the Mirror," "Smooth Criminal"
DANGEROUS (1991, Epic)
THE DEAL Jackson split with Quincy Jones and went with Teddy Riley, who helped build the "New Jack Swing" sound. It felt like a step back, as Jackson started dealing with the backlash about his increasingly odd life, in "Black or White" and "In the Closet." His glossy production was losing popularity with the rise of grunge.
HITS "Black or White," "Jam," "In the Closet," "Heal the World," "Remember the Time," "Who Is It"
INVINCIBLE (2001, Epic)
THE DEAL His attempt to mount a comeback - both from his troubles with the law and from a music industry that left him behind - didn't go as planned. "Invincible" was trying too hard to make its points, only succeeding when Jackson stuck to his guns rather than ill-advised pairings with The Notorious B.I.G. and R. Kelly.
HITS "You Rock My World," "Butterflies"