Michael Jackson spent the last two years of his life plotting his musical comeback.
Besides a spectacular, record-breaking concert series planned for London, England, he was also tapping the hottest producers and biggest names for an album he hoped would help restore the lustre 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, and something they could hold and remember forever."
Jackson didn't live to see his dream come to fruition, but with help from Feemster, the singer's estate and several 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."
Project drew criticism
Yet some are questioning whether Michael should be considered a true Jackson album since the King of Pop — a notoriously meticulous creator who laboured over his creations until he thought they were as 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 done some work with Jackson before he died, harshly rebuked the planned posthumous release in an interview with The Associated Press, saying: "Now that he is not part of the process, what are they doing? Why would you put a record out like that? 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 come out and vouch for the track's authenticity.
"I don't think that it's fair for anyone to say it without any proof. You have no proof," said Riley in a recent interview, adding that the producers "took it to the next level" and hired three forensic musicologists in defence of the album.
Sony Records, which is releasing Michael, also got the backing of other Jackson collaborators to prove that it is Jackson.
John Branca, who was Jackson's lawyer for years and is co-executor of his estate, would not specifically address the veracity of Jackson's vocals, saying the facts speak for themselves. But as far as whether Jackson would have approved of the release of the songs, Branca, while calling Jackson a "perfectionist," compared the upcoming album to that of 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.
"If you remember, there was criticism about the movie 'This Is It' because it contained rehearsal footage," said Branca. "Some said Michael would not have wanted to release it. But people loved it and it expanded people's love for him."
Top names brought in for album
Michael, a mixture of soulful pop ballads and up-tempo, mechanical-sounding grooves that recall his Dangerous era, is a much more polished artistic project than This Is It, party due to the top names brought in by the estate to finish Jackson's creative vision.
Stewart, who has worked with such top talent as Beyoncé and Rihanna, never collaborated with Jackson but was asked to work on the ballad Keep Your Head Up, which Jackson co-wrote. Stewart said the process was a bit intimidating at first.
"It was a tremendous amount of pressure because Michael was one of the great record-makers in the history of music," said Stewart. "Not only are you trying to make sure that you're keeping the integrity of the record, but you're also trying to love up the body of work."
To that end, Stewart said he tread more lightly on Jackson's song than he would have on his own material: "I moved a bit more delicately because I knew there was going to be an approval process... I felt like it was just a situation that I wanted to bring them back the product that they were anticipating."
'The albums that he made up 'til now were legendary ... [The new release is] more of an album that you can hold onto to commemorate and appreciate his legacy.'—Akon
For Kravitz, finishing the song I Can't Make It Another Day, which the two recorded in part while their children were milling about, was bittersweet without Jackson's participation. But he's confident in its quality: "I think it was him at a very strong point ... he is singing his behind off."
Feemster said he and Jackson would spend time listening to all the top hits on the radio before crafting their songs in the hope of making something contemporary but innovative. He said Jackson's motto was "give them something familiar but also give them something that they never had before."
Riley considers Michael a work that will stand favourably against classics like Thriller or Off the Wall.
"I would say that this is a masterpiece," declared Riley. "It goes along with the piece of the puzzle."
Yet Akon, who co-wrote the album's first single, Hold My Hand, thinks the album should be considered more of an attempt to honour the memory of a legend than an example of his finest material.
"I wouldn't compare this album to any of his albums. The albums that he made up 'til now were legendary ... Mike at his peak, at the height of his creativity," said Akon.
"This is not like a finished product that you can compare anything to," he added. "It's more of an album that you can hold on to to commemorate and appreciate his legacy."