A few days after Michael Jackson died in June 2009, I found myself up in Harlem at the Apollo Theater covering a wake of sorts, led by Reverend Al Sharpton and Spike Lee. I had never seen an entire neighborhood out in the streets, mourning their icon no less. By the time the memorial let out, it was raining. The crowd’s homemade posters were slowly deteriorating, sort of like Jackson himself as time ticked away, but there is one I will never forget: “MJ, you will live on forever” in red glitter paint. At the time I didn’t anticipate the lengths to which the music industry would go to make these words true.
In the nearly five years since Jackson died, popular culture has searched for answers — from the Jackson family, from AEG, from Dr. Conrad Murray — more than I think anyone could have anticipated. Murray’s trials (yes, plural) dragged on until this past October.
All the while, Jackson’s various business endeavors have pushed onward, with just the small caveat that he’s no longer alive. Nostalgia is among the most reliable publicity strategies these days, right behind controversy, and Jackson covers both bases now. But the glut of posthumous releases makes me wonder: is it what the true fans want? And is it in any way damaging to Jackson’s legacy to the larger public? Or will the posthumous releases just be forgotten, unlike his indelible hits, which will endure?
When Michael — perhaps the posthumous MJ album, in that it was comprised of unreleased material — was released in December 2010, it was the seventh Jackson release Sony had put out in the year and a half since his death. The rest of these releases were, for the most, pretty much the same: a combination of hits, puzzle-pieced into whatever angle, era, or fancy package Sony wanted to sell.
In the midst of late 2009’s MJ greatest-hits brigade came the release of This Is It, the documentary concert film that showed Jackson preparing for the string of high-profile performance that Murray and AEG spent years in court arguing did not indirectly kill him (via intense medication). It was an illuminating film, comprised of practice footage that would have mortified Jackson, pop’s biggest perfectionist.
There was the occasional project that showed Jackson’s work in something of a new light: specifically, two officially-sanctioned Cirque du Soleil shows, One and The Immortal World Tour . The soundtrack for the latter — remixes, mash-ups, and alternate tacks of MJ’s hits with and without his brothers — was called simply Immortal, which seems to be Epic Records’ approach to Jackson these days. The Sony-owned label is responsible for distributing and promoting the bulk of the posthumous MJ material, along with Jackson’s own Epic-distributed imprint, MJJ. (The estate-controlled MJJ reopened following Jackson’s death, after eight years out of the biz, for the sake of reissuing his material.)
Today came the announcement that Epic and MJJ would release yet another “posthumous” Jackson album, titled Xscape, on May 13. It’s a mere eight songs long and was supervised by the biggest cash register executive at Epic, infamous CEO L.A. Reid. Billboard says that Reid “took the lead in cultivating recordings from Jackson in which his vocals were completed, and went about ‘contemporizing’ each,” alongside lead producer Timbaland, a ’90s innovator fresh off hitching himself to Jay Z’s Magna Carta wagon for a semi-successful comeback. Timbo has been discussing the project since last year, but it’s only now that the project has come into full view.
Other producers tasked in this MJ “contemporization” include Rihanna right-hand men Stargate, Rodney Jerkins (the producer of choice among aging R&B-pop divas), Timbaland/Jay Z/Beyoncé associate Jerome “Jroc” Harmon, and John McClain (an A&M Records executive-turned-producer who most notably played a role in Janet Jackson’s 1986 about-face, Control). As a press release notes, the group were given song assignments by Reid before they “retooled the production to add a fresh, contemporary sound that retains Jackson’s essence and integrity.”
“Michael left behind some musical performances that we take great pride in presenting through the vision of music producers that he either worked directly with or expressed strong desire to work with,” Reid said in a statement. “We are extremely proud and honored to present this music to the world.” But where were these songs when Michael came out? Were they the songs that weren’t saucy enough at the time?
With its tracks titled “Breaking News,” “Hollywood Tonight,” and “Behind,” Michael was an album aimed not only at big MJ fans, but also those curious about the controversy surrounding him. This strategy sort of worked as far as sales went: 228,000 copies moved in the album’s first week of release, right in time for Christmas. But as EW reported at the time, Epic was hoping for figures more in the range of 400,000 copies sold. Debuting at No. 3, behind Taylor Swift and Susan Boyle, did not make matters better.
And so, Epic will try again with more current players: a revitalized Timbaland instead of Akon, Rodney Jerkins instead of his mentor Teddy Riley (neither of whom are terribly modern, despite immense talent), plus no 50 Cent or Lenny Kravitz cameos. Even the Xscape cover seems like a play at avant-garde coolness.
I don’t suspect this trend will stop, either. As the years go by, big-time R&B-pop producers will continue to take their shots at “producing” Jackson. At some point, there will be more Michael Jackson albums released after his death than there were released in his 27 years as a solo artist (ten). The Jackson estate certainly shows no sign of doing anything other than milking his legacy for all it’s worth: “[Jackson’s is] a pretty vibrant estate in the sense that it continues to generate not just catalog opportunities but plenty of other ideas,” attorney Howard Weitzman, a co-manager of the Jackson estate, told Billboard in 2011.
There’s very little Epic can do to diminish Jackson’s spot in the musical canon, which has remained cemented despite MJ’s personal dismantling. From Off the Wall to Thriller to Bad, much of his work is rightly regarded worldwide as among the best pop music of the 20th century. But to be as selective as Jackson was about his release schedule and yet so obsessive about his work, he clearly spent some amount of time experimenting in the studio, writing songs that he figured would never see the light of day in order to get the gems. It was Jackson’s personal process — and it’s a shame Epic can’t respect that.