NEW YORK - Michael Jackson spent the last two years of his life plotting his musical comeback. Besides a spectacular, record-breaking concert series planned for London, he was tapping the hottest producers and biggest names for an album he hoped would help restore luster to his spectacular yet troubled career.
"He wanted to give the world a gift. He didn't want the world to depend on Thriller or Bad or Off the Wall," said Theron "Neff-U" Feemster, one of the last producers to work with Jackson. "He wanted to give them something new and fresh."
Jackson didn't live to see his dream come to fruition, but with help from Feemster, the singer's estate and other collaborators, another Jackson album has been crafted for his fans.
Michael, to be released Tuesday, contains 10 songs, most of which Jackson was working on when he died in June 2009 at age 50. The tracks were at different stages of completion, but producers like longtime Jackson collaborator Teddy Riley, Grammy winner Tricky Stewart, and rocker Lenny Kravitz worked over the last year to put the finishing touches on an album they believe Jackson would have been proud to call his own.
"I know he stood behind it, so I'm cool with what I did," said Kravitz. "I was proud to put it out and knew that he'd be all over it, that he'd be really with it."
Yet some are questioning whether Michael should be considered a true Jackson album since the King of Pop - a notoriously meticulous creator who labored over his creations until he thought they were as near perfect as they could be - never put his stamp of approval on it.
Earlier this year, the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am, who had worked with Jackson before he died, harshly rebuked the planned posthumous release, telling the Associated Press: "Now that he is not part of the process, what are they doing? . . . Because he was a friend of mine, I just think that's disrespectful."
That's not the only criticism of the project. When the single "Breaking News" was previewed for fans on michaeljackson.com, his three nephews publicly assailed the song, a condemnation of the media, and said the voice featured on the track wasn't Jackson's. This led Riley, former manager Frank Dileo, and others to vouch for the track's authenticity.
"I don't think that it's fair for anyone to say it without any proof," said Riley in a recent interview, adding that the producers hired three forensic musicologists in defense of the album.
And would Jackson have approved the release of these songs? While calling Jackson a "perfectionist," his estate's co-executor, John Branca, compared the release of Michael to last year's This Is It. That film was based on rehearsals for Jackson's sold-out comeback shows at London's O2 arena that were never to be. With careful editing, a dazzling - if unfinished - portrait of Jackson emerged.
Michael, a mixture of soulful pop ballads and up-tempo, mechanical-sounding grooves that recall his Dangerous era, is a more polished artistic project than This Is It.
Akon, who cowrote the album's first single, "Hold My Hand," thinks the album should be considered more an attempt to honor the memory of a legend than an example of his finest material.
"This is not like a finished product that you can compare anything to," he said. "It's more of an album that you can hold on to to commemorate and appreciate his legacy."