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Michael Jackson's legacy continues with new album
Count Akon among those who thought the idea of a posthumous album of new Michael Jackson material was a little, well, off the wall.
But now he feels it’s a thriller.
The Senegalese-American performer is one of the artists contributing to “Michael,” a collection of 10 unreleased Jackson songs due out Tuesday, but already leaked on the Internet. Akon co-wrote, co-produced and duets with Jackson on the album’s first single, “Hold My Hand,” but he professes himself “shocked and surprised” that the project is happening at all.
“I didn’t think at any moment that any of these songs would be released,” says Akon, who worked on a number of tracks with Jackson during 2008. “Michael Jackson was the kind of person who didn’t want any of the songs to be released if they weren’t completely done. So I’m kind of surprised this is happening.”
Nevertheless, Akon — as well as Teddy Riley, the veteran producer who finished off three songs for release on “Michael” — are happy to see Jackson’s estate mining the vaults for more music 18 months after the record-setting superstar’s sudden death, adding to the legacy of more than 750 million albums sold worldwide.
“Who wouldn’t want to continue such a great entertainer and such a great legacy?” explains Riley, a member of the group’s Guy and Blackstreet who began working with Jackson on 1991’s “Dangerous” album. “Why not continue someone’s legacy and take it to the next level? Michael was a never-ending book.”
And while others who have worked with Jackson have criticized the project — notably the Black Eyed Peas will.i.am, who says that “I don’t think (Jackson) would want to release the songs in the state they were in.” — Akon (real name Aliaune Thiam) feels that the album serves a different kind of purpose.
“It’s more of a situation where we can just take it and say, OK, this is something he left behind for us to enjoy,” he explains. “The world knows that these songs are not completely finished. It’s more that his intention was to complete and finish these (songs) and put them out to his audience. Even though it’s not completely done, it’s a great opportunity to hold on to something that could have been amazing.”
Jackson had been working on songs for many years for a planned new album — his first since 2001’s “Invincible” — when he died on June 25, 2009 at the age of 50. Some had been recorded in Los Angeles, others had been crafted with friends Eddie and Frank Cascio in Bergen, N.J. The acoustic, melodic “Much Too Soon” dates back to the “Thriller” sessions in the early ’80s, while Jackson and Lenny Kravitz worked on “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day” when Jackson was making “Invincible,” and a demo of the sweet pop song “(I Like) The Way You Love Me” appeared on Jackson’s “Ultimate Collection” in 2004.
Jackson added lyrics to the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Behind the Mask” after hearing the Japanese group’s instrumental version, and “Best of Joy” was one of several songs Jackson planned to continue recording in London during the summer of 2009, when he was slated to perform his series of “This is It” concerts at London’s O2 arena.
Once the estate — overseen by record executive and longtime Jackson family friend John McClain, who produced two of the tracks on “Michael,” and longtime Jackson attorney John Branca — decided to proceed with a posthumous album, calls went out assigning songs to particular producers. “The estate and Sony (Music, Jackson’s label), they would come in and say, ‘We want Teddy to work on this. We want Teddy to work on that one,’ and I would approach anything they sent my way,” recalls Riley, who kept photos of Jackson around him in the studio “to kind of get into a Michael vibe and make him feel like he was in there with me.”
“It was very emotional,” he says. “We didn’t have Michael to come back and touch up vocals, so we had to do what we had to do to get them to the best of his ability, the best of what he would expect it to be. He’d always say, ‘I want it strong. I want it slamming. I want it to be great.’
“So that’s what we did. We made that approach to make it sound great.”
Riley’s three tracks required varying degrees of tweaking to finish them for “Michael.” For the “Billie Jean”-styled “Hollywood Tonight,” he wrote a spoken bridge to be “kind of what (Jackson) would do on a song like ‘Dangerous,’ have a talk track.” On “Breaking News,” Riley added a full array of instrumentation “to take it to the next level and really make it very exciting.”
And Riley “spent the longest time” on “Monster,” which features a rap by 50 Cent. “When I first heard it, it was too slow; it wasn’t upbeat like Michael wanted,” Riley remembers. “So I kind of brought it up to the speed of ... ‘In the Closet,’ just to give it that funk appeal. I brought in guitars. I brought in bass. I brought in keys. I brought a lot of effects and sounds that kinda took it to the next level.”
50 Cent, meanwhile, was Jackson’s specific choice to be part of the song; Jackson’s wishes were marked on the notes for the song in Jackson’s vaults and the rapper even tweeted to fans at one point that “Michael reached out to me to do this song before he passed. (It’s) going to be the biggest thing ever.”
“He came right in and did what he does and took it in another direction, and it came out incredible,” Riley notes.
Akon, meanwhile, knew Jackson from working on the 25th anniversary edition of “Thriller” and was already working on “Hold My Hand” for himself when Jackson asked him to “help compose or come up with concepts” together. The song apparently fit the bill for what Jackson wanted to sing about, and Akon suggested that he appear on the recording.
“The song was pretty much finished,” Akon says, “but his delivery creates a whole other environment, a whole other vibe, his tone and energy just made that record seem completely different. The record didn’t sound the same once he laid his vocals on it.
“So I was like, ‘Yo, you sound amazing on this record.’ This record is definitely bigger with him on it, so we decided we would make it his record featuring myself ’cause I felt like he’d give it more mileage, him doing the record versus me, and the record would be so, so much bigger if it was a Michael Jackson record.”
Some of the songs on “Michael” — including “Hold My Hand” and the Kravitz collaboration, which features Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl on drums — have leaked out via the Internet over the years, while the Jackson camp was also dogged by allegations that some of his vocal tracks were not genuine. An Italian Jackson impersonator even told a British tabloid that he secretly recorded some of the songs in Switzerland.
Howard Weitzman, an attorney for Jackson’s estate, ultimately wrote a widely circulated letter detailing the authentication process, which included listening sessions with producers, engineers and musicians — including Detroit native Greg Phillinganes, Jackson’s longtime keyboardist and touring musical director — as well as a pair of forensic musicologists. Sony Music issued a statement saying that, “We have complete confidence ... that the vocals on the album are (Jackson’s) own.”
With “Michael” ready for release — it leaked online last week but is still predicted for a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 chart — attention is now turning toward more posthumous releases. The Jackson camp is relatively mum, merely noting in a statement accompanying “Michael” that “while it is too early to announce specific future projects, it is safe to say that given how much Michael valued his fans, the selection and release of those works will be done in a way that properly honors his legacy.”
Riley and Akon, meanwhile, are chomping at the bit to do more.
“My sense is they have lots more songs to actually share with the world, and I hope to be part of it,” says Riley, who already has some additional tracks “in my computer, waiting for (the Jackson estate) to push the button.” Among those is therecently leaked “Blue Gangsta,” which Riley describes as “the next level of the next chapter of ‘Smooth Criminal.’ ”
Akon, meanwhile, confirms that “there were a lot of songs we actually got to start up, but the problem is we never really got a chance to finish them because we kind of created the same way. He would start songs and then go on to the next song before one song was finished, then double back and complete the songs later. We just wanted to get as many ideas done as possible.
“So we got ideas, but none of them were really in a position to where we could finish them and put them out.”
Their future, he adds, is for others to determine.
“It all depends on the situation,” Akon says. “I think whatever he left behind, there’s ways we can make them sound really presentable to people and give them something to hold onto. I would love to be a part of it. Who wouldn’t?”
MORE POST-MORTEM MICHAEL
The “Michael” album of unreleased material is the most prominent of several posthumous projects following Michael Jackson’s death in June 2009. Other notable memorials include:
The Definitive Collection: A quick 2009 cash-in by Universal Motown, featuring 19 Jackson 5 and Jackson solo hits for the label.
The Stripped Mixes: Motown continued to dig into its vaults for, as the title indicates, stripped-down versions of Jackson’s work while at the label.
The Remix Suite: Another Motown project, this time bringing in contemporary producers and engineers — including the Neptunes, Frankie Knuckles, Benny Blanco and Stargate — to refresh and revise the material.
Michael Jackson’s This Is It: The fall of 2009 documentary from rehearsals for Jackson’s planned “This Is It” shows at London’s 02 arena grossed $261 million during it theatrical run prior to its DVD release. The soundtrack album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has been certified platinum, features studio versions of songs from the show as well as the previously unreleased title track.
Michael Jackson: The Experience: A new video game allows players to execute Jackson’s dance moves — even while wearing the replica of his famous rhinestone glove that comes packaged with it.
Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour: A partnership between the Jackson estate and Cirque du Soleil, the multi-media show kicks off next October and comes to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on Oct. 15.
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