The album is called Michael, but the first words heard on the initial posthumous collection of Michael Jackson's unreleased studio recordings aren't sung by the late King of Pop.
Instead, it's Akon, the Senegalese American R&B hitmaker, who's heard crowing "Akon and MJ!" at the start of "Hold My Hand," a song he wrote, and brought Jackson in on to sing as a duet in 2007. The track didn't make it onto Freedom, Akon's 2008 album, presumably because Jackson's illustrious career as a pop superstar was then hopelessly eclipsed by his status as a scandal-ridden curiosity.
What a difference a death makes. "Everybody loves you when you're six foot in the ground," John Lennon famously sang in "Nobody Loves You (When You're Down and Out)," a mordant observation that has held as true in the short term for Jackson as it has for Lennon in the long run.
In the year and a half since Jackson's death at age 50 in June 2009, his catalog has sold an estimated 35 million albums worldwide. That has once again earned him his stature as the most popular singer in the world. And with the holiday shopping season upon us, there needs to be more where that came from.
Alas, with Michael (Epic **), there is. Or, more aptly, there's less. Jackson's estate is said to have inked a $250 million deal with Sony to keep the market supplied with Jackson product in the coming years. But Michael suggests that if it is indeed true that Jackson left hundreds of tracks behind, he might well have done so because he knew they were not up to snuff.
It makes sense, then, for Michael to lead off with "Hold My Hand," because, thin as the song is, and even though Jackson didn't even write it himself, it's at least a finished product that is ready to meet the contemporary marketplace.
That's less true of much of Michael, which is full of songs that have been tinkered with by producers like Teddy Riley and rapped over by the likes of 50 Cent - who turns in a not-bad verse on "Monster," a track that is not the same and not as good as the song of the same title on Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Jackson was a noted perfectionist and micromanager. One of the thrills of This Is It, last year's behind-the-scenes making-of movie about the run-up to the marathon concert series in London that never came to pass, was that it showed a still-vital Jackson putting a troupe of musicians and dancers through their paces as he strived to get every detail just so in bringing a personal vision to fruition.
Many of Jackson's friends and associates have questioned the integrity of Michael. Quincy Jones and others have wondered whether that's really Jackson repeatedly invoking himself in the third person in the paranoid, the-media-are-out-to-get-Michael tirade "Breaking News."
And Black Eyed Peas leader and producer will.i.am, who collaborated with Jackson on unfinished tracks he says he will never release, told Rolling Stone that strategy on Michael of reworking Jackson's work after his death was "disrespectful," adding that it "disgusts me."
All fair points, but did anyone really think that profiteers would let Jackson's sleeping vaults lie? Not a chance. Saccharine acoustic trifles like "Much Too Soon" may not amount to much musically, but with the right heart-tugging video montage behind it, it's bound to be a massive hit.
And Michael is by no means a complete washout. Even without Jackson alive to exert quality control, his professionalism sees to it that he doesn't embarrass himself in death.
There is a find or two here, most impressively the nimble meditation on fame and identity "Behind the Mask," which, not surprisingly, dates from the early '80s Thriller sessions. Originally a hit for Ryuichi Sakomoto's Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1979, its dated production can't get in the way of its sleek, unstoppable rhythm, punctuated by Jackson's unmistakable vocal tics and yelps.
Unfortunately, there's not more where that came from.