Before his untimely death in June 2009, Michael Jackson had been formulating a new batch of material that would have served as the follow-up to 2001’s “Invincible.” Although Jackson would sadly never see the release of this group of songs, an all-star team of producers and collaborators was assembled to complete the King Of Pop’s vision and finish “Michael,” Jackson’s first posthumous album.
Set for a Dec. 14 release on Epic, “Michael” is bursting with pop hooks and Jackson’s unique vocal energy. The 10 tracks form an impressively cohesive disc that features production from C. “Tricky” Stewart, Teddy Riley and Theron “Neff-U” Feemster, and guest spots by Lenny Kravitz and 50 Cent. Most importantly, “Michael” maintains the uplifting tone that Jackson intended for this collection of songs: “He wanted to put out music that was positive enough to bring the world together,” says Akon, who duets on first single “Hold My Hand.”
Several of the album’s key producers and collaborators — including Akon, Riley and Stewart — talked to Billboard.com about the making of each track, and what it meant to contribute to a project as monumental as “Michael.”
1. “Hold My Hand” (Duet with Akon)
Akon originally wrote this uplifting single for himself, but after being tapped by Jackson to help piece together the King of Pop’s next album, the Senegalese singer decided that Jackson’s presence on the track was vital. “The song was pretty much finished, but his delivery creates a whole other environment — his tone and energy just made that record seem completely different,” says Akon, who ended up recording the song with Jackson in Las Vegas in 2008. “We decided we would make it his record featuring myself, because I felt like he’d give it more mileage, and the record would be so, so much bigger if it was a Michael Jackson record.”
2. “Hollywood Tonight“
A cautionary tale built around breakneck beats, “Hollywood Tonight” finds Jackson telling an intense story of a girl who lets glamour go to her head. The track sounds like Britney Spears’ “Lucky” crossed with Justin Timberlake’s “Lovestoned,” but co-producer Teddy Riley had Jackson’s own hits in mind when concocting its danceable sound. “I was looking at just doing the next level of ‘Billie Jean’ meets ‘Dangerous’ or ‘Doggin’ Me Around,'” says the producer, who previously worked with Jackson on tracks like “Remember the Time” and “Dangerous.” “It’s like one of those driving bass lines that you will remember.”
3. “Keep Your Head Up”
“Give me your wings so we can fly,” Jackson sings on this inspirational track, which feeds off of swelling backing vocals and slow handclaps at its conclusion. R&B producer C. “Tricky” Stewart was brought in to “add a last bit of polish” to the track, but he says that all of the components of a classic Jackson song were already in place. “It starts small, gets big and ends with a big choir and big drums-the Jackson sound that everybody has come to know and love,” says Stewart.
4. “(I Like) The Way You Love Me“
“(I Like) The Way You Love Me” begins with the audio recording of a voicemail Jackson left his engineer, in which he sings the hook and describes the drum arrangement of the track. The simple sketch eventually led to this blissful love song, which recalls “The Way You Make Me Feel” with its layered vocals and gentle percussion. “It’s a song he had in his heart for many years,” says Theron “Neff-U” Feemster, who worked with Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx prior to co-producing the track alongside Jackson in Los Angeles. “I’m glad he trusted me enough to complete his vision.”
5. “Monster” (featuring 50 Cent)
After opening with a terrifying scream, “Monster” quickly unveils its stuttering beat as Jackson begins lashing out at those who see him as “an animal;” at its climax, the singer can only manage the painful question, “Why?” Riley says that the harrowing song was too slow when he first began working on it, and that he spent a while adding some funk to the darker themes. “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,” says Riley. The producer also worked with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who added a bruising verse to the song earlier this year. “Michael always wanted to work with 50,” says Riley. “He came right in and did what he does, and took it in another direction, and it came out incredible.”
6. “Best of Joy”
One of the last songs that Jackson worked on before passing away, “Best of Joy”‘s message of commitment takes on a new resonance in the wake of the singer’s death: “I am forever,” Jackson coos, adding, “We’ll never part/Our love is from the heart.” Feemster says that the track was completely finished before Jackson’s death, and that it was meant to be unveiled during his “This Is It” tour. “You can’t help but smile when you hear it,” the producer says of the song.
7. “Breaking News”
When it first debuted in early November, “Breaking News” presented a more defensive side of Jackson, who attacks the media for turning him into a “boogie man.” Recorded in the New Jersey home of co-producer Eddie Cascio in 2007, the song’s simmering beat and throwback feel can be credited to Riley, who claims responsibility for many of the song’s major musical elements. “‘Breaking News’ was a track that, when I first heard it, I wanted to take to the next level and make it very exciting, very interesting, and kind of change things up,” says Riley, “and we completed our mission doing that.”
8. “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day” (Featuring Lenny Kravitz)
After seven songs of R&B-influenced pop, “Michael” takes a left turn with this Lenny Kravitz collaboration, which develops an industrial rock groove that’s a bit reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails. “You’re the fire that keeps me warm!” Jackson bellows on the chorus, as guitars envelop his voice and Kravitz repeats the song title like a lullaby. Aside from Kravitz’s blistering solo on the bridge, “(I Can’t Make It) Another Day” is highlighted by some spectacular percussion courtesy of Dave Grohl.
9. “Behind The Mask”
This kinetic pop song was originally performed by Yellow Magic Orchestra before Jackson asked to add some lyrics to match the danceable beat. A saxophone solo soon segues into a series of electronic blips, and Jackson offers the command, “Take off the mask, so I can see your face!” while computerized backing vocals contribute to the tightly packed production. “Mask” is a must-listen if only because, out of all the songs on “Michael,” it holds the highest number of Jackson’s signature “hee-hee!” exclaims.
10. Much Too Soon
“Michael” ends with its most somber song, as “Much Too Soon” finds Jackson wistfully looking back on a relationship that he could not make work. “I’m hoping that my prayers will see, The day that you come back to me/But I guess I learned my lesson much too soon,” sings Jackson, who produced the song alongside McClain. Written around the time of the “Thriller” album, “Much Too Soon” stands as a powerful final reminder of Jackson’s emotional vocals and effortless songwriting.