Hours after TMZ announced Michael Jackson‘s death, something “magical” happened. Everyone decided it was safe to be a fan of the King of Pop again. In a matter of minutes, maybe less, the whole world (more specifically, America) forgot about the corny punch lines they once shared to friends at the water cooler or the countless parodies they had come to enjoy, all of which developed this unfortunate post-2000 personification of an artist that, more or less, had become a modern myth. Up until that point, the name Michael Jackson didn’t necessarily spark memories of, say, Thriller, Bad, or the often forgotten 90’s masterpiece, Dangerous. Instead, trashy tabloids and shitty gags in Scary Movie, South Park, etc. took precedence. It’s a crap deal for someone who’s arguably the most inimitable force in music history, but that’s how things were prior to June 25, 2009. Still, death’s a curious thing.
On the afternoon of June 25th, you couldn’t walk across the street without hearing “Billie Jean” or “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough”. Everyone heard the news and they turned to the guy’s discography. Since a great deal of the population didn’t own the records anymore – or, as many of you born in 1984 probably experienced, were forbidden to listen to ‘em around the early ’90s – places like Best Buy and/or iTunes witnessed a spike in sales. Within a month, any financial troubles Jackson had left behind were a thing of the past. What’s more, much like the rest of the population, record companies re-discovered his talent again, too. Big whigs signed contracts, projects were penciled in, and products were shipped left and right. Admittedly, and looking back, it’s one of the most impressive comebacks a musician’s ever had – if only it weren’t laced in so much tragedy. Then again, death’s also tricky.
It’s strange, too. For instance, at the time of Jackson’s death, people kept saying to one another, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” When had anyone seen him? Save for headlines or tabloids, Jackson spent most of his time during the ’00s out of the spotlight. Even when he released 2001’s highly underrated Invincible, he made little to no appearances. Sure, Sony botched any plans on promotion, but it was nothing a world tour wouldn’t have solved. That’s why the release of Michael, Jackson’s first posthumous effort, feels relatively similar. The interest is there, but the icon isn’t.
But if you recall the release of his landmark records, you’ll remember his promotional magic. Everything from the time the first single hit radio stations to when the big video premiered, it was all something out of this world. Technically, that was always the most exciting aspect of a Jackson release. We loved the music, but we loved seeing what he’d do with it – namely his videos, which are arguably just as important as the music itself. (Hey, even Invincible had that delectable “You Rock My World” video.) They’ve tried to recreate that idea – what with the world premieres of tracks here and there – but it will never be the same. So, that leaves us with just the music.
On the whole, Michael feels rather dull. Vocally, he’s on target the majority of the time, with the exception of the still manufactured-sounding, “Breaking News”, but musically it’s far from impressive. So many of the beats sound so derivative that it lacks any evolution, which is what Jackson was always about. Look at the transition between Off the Wall and Thriller, or better yet, Bad to Dangerous. He went from disco to ’80s synth, from hair metal aesthetics to New jack swing. What’s more, he always surrounded himself with the most top notch, key players in any industry. Do you think it was by chance that Jackson hired the likes of Macaulay Culkin or Michael Jordan for his videos? Remember, it was the early ’90s, those guys were just as much royalty as he was. The same went for Slash, or Eddie Van Halen, or Martin Scorcese, or Teddy Riley. That’s what’s missing on Michael.
For the most part, the collaborations actually hurt the songs. No, “Monster” isn’t the next “Thriller”, as 50 Cent claimed it to be, but it’s a decent song. Jackson sounds awkwardly retro, the beat shuffles ‘n’ sweeps, and it feels right…until you’re thrown next to 50’s uninspired rap that sounds more fitting for a summer blockbuster theme. The same goes for the highly irritating and incredibly repetitive “Hold My Hand”, where Akon belts out the same thing again and again in an equally monotonous pitch. For a lead single, it’s tepid and incredibly campy. Then there’s “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day”, featuring guitar wizard Lenny Kravitz, who churns out a chalky riff that tires 45 seconds into the song. Jackson himself sounds angry, forceful, and dominating, but altogether it doesn’t beg for a re-listen. That’s sort of a must when it comes to his music.
Every song here has its flaws, though; after all, there’s a reason Jackson himself didn’t release ‘em. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some things to take away. “(I Like) The Way You Love Me” works off this dreamy piano melody and some incredibly rich instrumentation that lets Jackson soar high. It’s probably the greatest highlight on the album and the one that feels the most natural, too. “Keep Your Head Up” should succeed in making you smile, sounding like one of Jackson’s ’90s classics. With a clean, sophisticated finish, Jackson finds himself swimming here, thanks to some pretty spot-on production work by Christopher Stewart. It’s easy listening, but done well. “Hollywood Tonight” could have used some tweaking to keep it from sounding like a Madonna tune (What were you thinking with that spoken word, Teddy Riley?), but regardless, it’s still a fast-paced spitter that’s decadently enviable.
Now, admittedly, it’s child’s play to see the flaws and nitpick this release from here until the next one. (Oh, don’t deny it…you know it’s coming.) However, the real joy is hearing Michael Jackson on something that isn’t “Beat It” or “Heal the World” or something we’ve all spun thousands of times, especially over the past year. While nothing on this record comes close to rivaling any of his past material, you can’t deny the urge to indulge yourself in something labeled, “new Michael Jackson”, and that’s where Michael succeeds. In terms of lasting power, however, you’ll probably forget about it in a matter of weeks, but who knows? Maybe you’ll feel nostalgic again. After all, that’s what death does to the best of us. Still, as we learned with Invincible, it takes more than just a studio effort to conjure up the magic.
Because of this, we’ll always miss you, Michael.