For the second time since his tragic demise, Michael Jackson is returning from the hereafter.
Not in the literal sense, of course. Michael's latest revival is that time-honored tradition, prized by record companies and estates riven by family feuds over cash, if not debt (for the record, Jackson's Herculean personal debts were in fact paid off more than a year ago). The King of Pop will come back to us via "Xscape," his latest posthumous release – or, according to The Rolling Stone's hair-splitting definition, "the first posthumous album of new music."
Depending on who you ask and how they define a new album, "Xscape" will be Jackson's third musical effort released in the wake of his death. Executive producer and music legend L.A. Reid, who literally raided Michael's music vaults to curate songs where his vocals were completed, will partner with hip-hop wunderkind Timbaland and a host of other artists to give the new music a "fresh, contemporary sound."
All things considered, you can't knock Reid's hustle. Music released after a star has gone home to glory is becoming increasingly commonplace: after all, Tupac released seven platinum albums after he died in 1996. Other deceased stars, like Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, The Notorious B.I.G., Amy Winehouse and Aaliyah had far more modest musical caches.
Nevertheless, they remain as iconic as ever with their fan bases, and their legacies are as potent as they've ever been.
In the decade preceding his untimely demise, Michael Jackson was more famous for being famous (and seemingly endless controversies) than for his talents. Anything that keeps his music alive should be a good thing. Yet whether fans can realistically expect more from "Xscape" than they received from "Michael" (or, for that matter, "This is It") is very much an open question. The latter had the benefit of arriving in the fall of 2009, when the world was still shell-shocked over Jackson's death and public interest in him remained high. "Michael," however, arrived more than a year later, when the curiosity had waned substantially. The album's performance told the story: sales were tepid and critics were borderline brutal.
The coming release of "Xscape" underscores the conundrum facing record companies and artist's estates: there's a real business advantage to pushing out a dead star's albums – especially in the immediate wake of his or her death. Morbid though it may be, "This is It" received unquestionable ballast from the shocking circumstances surrounding Jackson departing this mortal coil. That said, and factoring in the diminishing returns of Michael's sales, the public may not want to expect much.
"Xscape" may carry the baggage of having arrived too late to capitalize on the surprisingly booming business of being Michael Jackson, which in many ways has proven more lucrative in death than in life. Jackson's estate has reaped a windfall since 2009, but not necessarily because of album sales: Rolling Stone notes that the Cirque de Soliel has paid tens of millions to license MJ's music at its shows.
The composition of the revenues pouring into the estate's coffers reflects the downward slope of Jackson's career. In many ways, the music from his early solo years holds more promise than anything that might be strip-mined from his unreleased catalogues.