Michael Jackson makes his best album in more than a decade -- with a lot of help from Rhymefest
The Michael Jackson revival is in full swing. A 25th anniversary edition of “Thriller,” his biggest album, is scheduled for release next month, and Jermaine Jackson says there will be Jackson 5 reunion tour this year that includes his most famous brother. Bottom line is that Jackson is still an icon, despite a litany of tabloid indiscretions that would’ve crushed most careers and reputations.
But Jackson also hasn’t made much in the way of compelling new music in at least decade. And I doubt that any of the Michael-is-back projects will equal the artistic inventiveness (or the affordability) of the latest release from South Side rapper Rhymefest, who just released “Man in the Mirror (The Michael Jackson Dedication Album)” as a free download on his Web site, rhymefest.com.
The release is musical contraband; it flouts copyright law and freely dips into the Jackson back catalog for source material, including a trove of audio interviews. It rearranges this material into a fascinating virtual collaboration between two artists of different generations who have never met. Gimmicky as it sounds, sparks fly. Jackson hasn’t had such a provocative and inspired collaborator since he was working with producer Quincy Jones --- back when “Thriller” reigned.
Such legally dicey remix projects have been a crucial part of the hip-hop underground for at least a decade, and survive in part because they’re usually low profile and low profit. Rhymefest says he lost money paying for studio time to make “Man in the Mirror,” and isn’t going to make a penny off its release because he does not intend to sell it.
What’s more, Rhymefest is clearly a fan; he digs beyond the obvious hits in songs stretching across five decades. Even his jokes at Jackson’s expense are affectionate rather than mean-spirited. The humor is one of the disc’s greatest charms, in part because it’s been missing from Jackson’s music and public persona for years. Rather than coming off as a freak, Jackson is portrayed as a gentle eccentric with musical chops to burn.
Chopped and spliced into the audio equivalent of a buddy film by Rhymefest and his longtime producer Mark Ronson, the disc humanizes Jackson through mock conversations; they range from juvenile jokes about flatulence to a poignant exchange on race relations called “Mike the Mentor.” Jackson acts as a virtual catalyst, his performances on vintage tracks such as “Don’t Let Your Baby Catch You,” “I Can’t Help It,” “Dancing Machine” and the title track inspire potent new songs. Best of all is “No Sunshine,” in which Jackson’s impassioned interpretation of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” courses through an equally fierce Rhymefest meditation on the traps of ambition. “You ever wanted something so bad ‘til you got it,” Rhymefest asks, “and it loses all the magic and it just don’t feel exotic?”
“Man in the Mirror” brings out the best in both artists. It’s prime Rhymefest, a prelude to his forthcoming album, “El Che,” due out through more legitimate channels later this year. And it adds up to the best Michael Jackson album in nearly two decades --- even though he may not even know it exists.