Michael Jackson‘s estate managed to bring the late star back to life, sort of, with an unnerving onstage pseudo-hologram at May 18th’s Billboard Music Awards – and that’s just the beginning of its ambitious plans for his career, which could include as many as eight more albums culled from outtakes and repackaged material. “We got more surprises coming,” says producer Rodney Jerkins, who worked on the newest posthumous release, Xscape.
The only problem may be soft demand for “new” Jackson music. Despite decent reviews and a single that guest-starred Justin Timberlake, Xscape stalled at Number Two, with a big second-week drop. “After a while, a certain part of the audience stops listening,” says Dan Beck, a former Epic Records exec who worked closely with Jackson.
Despite these hiccups, Jackson is the highest-grossing dead star in the world, as of 2013. The estate has earned $600 million since his death in 2009, thanks to lucrative projects such as Cirque du Soleil’s Immortal tour and a reported $250 million deal with Sony Music for the new albums. “They’ve done a very good job – think of how dysfunctional it could be,” Beck says. “We may not like particular elements of it, but Michael made the music, and they’ve kept that going.”
Xscape was a major improvement over the estate’s first posthumous album, 2010’s Michael. The latest project took shape in early 2013, when Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Epic’s chairman, met with John Branca, Jackson’s attorney and the estate’s co-executor, to present a movie concept. Branca instead invited Reid, a veteran producer who worked with Jackson in the late Eighties, to comb the vaults. When Reid found “Love Never Felt So Good,” a Thriller-era demo Jackson had written with crooner Paul Anka, he “realized he had elements of a hit album,” says Scott Seviour, an Epic executive vice president. Reid asked several top producers to freshen up the songs and deputized Timbaland to oversee the project.
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“Slave to the Rhythm,” which Reid, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and their team wrote and produced circa 1991’s Dangerous, was the foundation for Jackson’s May 18th “performance” – a CGI King of Pop singing and moonwalking, made lifelike through a 19th-century illusion called Pepper’s Ghost. The show divided Jackson’s friends and family – his brother Jackie said it moved him to tears, but his makeup artist Karen Faye tweeted, “It is a criminal violation to enslave another person.”
Fans should expect an even deeper excavation of the singer’s vaults in the coming years. Estate reps wouldn’t say how many songs are in usable form, but Jackson was famous for overrecording. “It was frequent that Michael would record songs and put them on the shelf,” says Matt Forger, his longtime engineer. After Jackson’s death, Tommy Mottola, Sony Music’s former CEO, suggested the singer worked up 20 to 30 songs for each album; Epic’s Seviour estimates “tens and twenties” are still in the vault. “I’m sure there are a few more great things out there,” says Jerkins, “and, hopefully, we’ll all have a chance to hear them.”
This is from the June 19th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.