Before his June 2009 death, Michael Jackson was struggling to stay relevant. While a rabid fan base supported every move he made, he never shook the hefty burden of his ’80s megastardom—and creatively, he lagged behind lots of modern R&B, soul and pop stars. In that way, Michael is no different from the album so many once-hot pop artists make to try to stay current.
- Michael Jackson
Contemporary guest stars show up to modernize Jackson’s sound. Akon’s digitally processed croon dominates the syrupy reggae-pop ballad “Hold My Hand,” while 50 Cent adds bulldog raps to “Monster,” a highlight, with its New Jack Swing-era rhythms and harmonies and ’N Sync-y techno stomps. And speaking of the latter: It’s likely no coincidence the production on the Teddy Riley-produced “Hollywood Tonight” screams Timberlake.
But Michael doesn’t skimp on the nostalgia, either. Two songs—the upbeat, ’80s-funk sizzle “Behind the Mask” and the treacly, AM Gold throwaway “Much Too Soon”—date from the Thriller era. The purest song on the album is also one of Jackson’s newest compositions: “Best of Joy,” a light-rock flutter driven by steady acoustic guitar and metronome rhythms, was reportedly recorded in 2009. The era-jumping, hodgepodge can feel disjointed; the style and atmosphere of the songs never really coheres. And for a notorious perfectionist like Jackson, Michael seems like a betrayal. He didn’t have final say or edits on any of these songs; it’s someone else controlling the narrative and message of the album. In the end, it’s impossible to separate the music from its exploitative foundation.