Michael Jackson’s Unheard Music
Inside his final recordings â€“ and the hundreds of unreleased tracks from his vault
By Brian Hiatt and Steve Knopper
Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin
In death, Michael Jackson finally achieved the comeback he so desperately wanted: He is once again the hottest recording artist on the planet. In the two and a half weeks after his passing, Jackson sold more than 2.3Â million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and occupies the top 12 slots on Billboard’s pop-catalogue album chart. And his death will pose little impediment to the release of more music: Jackson was at work on both a new pop album and a collection of classical-style instrumentals, and there are also untold numbers of outtakes in the vaults.
In the years since his last studio album, 2001’s Invincible, Jackson recorded new songs with that album’s co-producer, Rodney Jerkins, as well as with Will.i.am, Akon and Ne-Yo. Jerkins says that he finished 10 new songs with Jackson, including a couple that reprised the anti-media themes of 1987’s ”˜Leave Me Alone.’ He says Jackson, who feuded with his record label, Epic, hoped to release the new album independently.
Will.i.am worked on five songs with the singer ”“ one, ”˜I’m Gonna Miss You,’ Jackson wrote in the wake of James Brown’s 2006 death. They tried out songs in various styles, including one inspired by Estelle’s 2008 hit ”˜American Boy’ and another in the style of the Jacksons’ ”˜Can You Feel It.’ “It was music that made us dance and made us feel good,” says Will.i.am.
Akon recorded extensively with Jackson over a period of months, working on songs that touched on social issues such as poverty and AIDS. But Akon says most of the material was left unfinished ”“ Jackson told Akon he wanted to put his recording projects aside while he prepared for his 50 shows at London’s O2 arena. “He wanted to just be patient and come with the right concepts and the right songs for his new comeback,” says Akon.
Jackson was also at work on his first album of instrumental music, collaborating with film composer David Michael Frank on two 8-to-10-minute classical-style pieces. Jackson intended to have the music, which Frank describes as “almost like a film score,” recorded with an 80-piece orchestra.
Then there’s Jackson’s extensive library of outtakes: “Every time that he recorded, he over-recorded,” says former Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola. “He would record anywhere from 20 to 30 songs for each album. Any of them could have been as big a hit as the ones that came out.” Among the outtakes is a song from the Thriller sessions called ”˜Don’t Be Messin’ Around.’
Longtime engineer Bruce Swedien and Jackson also recorded experimental material: “I have a whole bunch of reels of tape that we just called ”˜unusual sounds,’ ” says Swedien. “Our idea was to eventually put them together and make them into music tracks.” Even Jackson’s earliest outtakes are likely to be heard ”“ employees for Universal Music Group, which owns the rights to the Jackson 5’s Motown work, are already digging through the archives.
“Any new work or compiled old work will be extremely commercially viable,” says Mottola. “And don’t forget, as a result of his death, kids who have really only heard about him before are becoming a whole new wave of Michael Jackson fans. You’re going to have new audiences listening, buying and dancing to Michael Jackson’s music for decades to come.”