Should Michael Jackson's "latest" posthumous song, "Hold My Hand," be credited to Michael & the Blowfish?
The newly released song, which duet partner Akon recently completed, is the first official single from an upcoming collection of previously unheard Jackson material (following the release of a teaser track, "Breaking News"). A rougher version of "Hold My Hand" was leaked in 2008, before Jackson's death, and it didn't set the world on fire at the time. Then, as now, some observers wondered why Jackson would want to record a song with elements that remind folks so much of the mid-'90s Hootie & the Blowfish smash of the same name.
The two songs are hardly dead ringers for one another, but they don't just share a name—the words of the title are sung by Jackson and Akon in roughly the same rhythm and phrasing, if not exactly the same note pattern. Maybe this eventually occurred to Jackson and would go some way toward explaining why the tune was never completed in his lifetime.
(The similarity probably isn't great enough to be legally actionable by Darius Rucker. Then again, Hootie did have to fork over royalties to Bob Dylan for "Only Want to Be With You" over a deliberate allusion to "Tangled Up in Blue," even those two songs arguably hold fewer similarities than Jackson's "Hold My Hand" does to the Hootie tune.)
Or maybe the Blowfish connection was never brought up to Jackson and he just left it in the can because it ultimately didn't meet his standards. When he died a year and a half ago, he left behind a wealth of unreleased material— which will apparently dribble out, little by little, 2Pac-style, for years to come. Until now, we've only been able to conjecture about the quality of these recordings, but two theories came to mind for why they never got issued or completed. Theory one: Jackson had become so isolated in his reclusiveness that he no longer was able to recognize his own greatness when he heard it. Theory two: He had his wits completely about him, and the stuff just wasn't very good.
"Hold My Hand" isn't terrible, unlike "Breaking News." But both songs do advance the theory that Jackson was of sound mind when he had a chance to complete and release these songs... and moved on to other things instead.
The bigger problem with "Hold My Hand," even more than The Hootie Hangup, is that you constantly sense Akon trying to fill in the blanks that Jackson left behind, as if he had mere scraps of Michael to work with. Jackson sings the first verse and chorus, but Akon dominates the second verse and bridge, so that by the end of the tune you're left feeling like you've heard more of the ostensible guest star than the late icon. Even if you think the vocal contributions are more or less balanced, though, there's no doubt Akon did the vast majority of the work here, before and after Jackson's death, giving it more the sense of a tribute project that happens to feature a contribution from the honoree than an actual Michael Jackson single.
You also have to imagine that, had he lived, Jackson might have tweaked the production to sound less derivative or datedly in-the-moment. And he almost certainly would have dropped the closing spoken bit, in which he says "Hold my hand" the exact same way he said "Make that change" once upon a time.
If Jackson were still alive and issuing this as the debut single from a new project, there's little doubt it'd be soundly panned. But if you're living for Jackson scraps, you might see the glass as half-full, in that "Hold My Hand" is listenable, hooky, and sweet-natured (none of which could reasonably be said about "Breaking News") and includes enough Michael in its first two minutes to qualify as a proper duet.
Will.i.am, who worked with Jackson on some unreleased material, has slammed these posthumous releases. "Michael Jackson songs are finished when Michael says they're finished," he told Entertainment Weekly. "Maybe if I never worked with him, I wouldn't have this perspective... To me it's disrespectful. There's no honoring... He was very particular about how he wanted his vocals... he was that hands-on."
Though it's tempting to agree with Will.i.am, all notions about respecting the dead and keeping incomplete works of the dearly departed well buried will fly right out the window—even among naysayers—at the exact moment at which Sony does come up out of the vaults with a Jackson classic. If there are any.
So let's be hopeful. Surely these are teasers and Sony is holding back the really good stuff for the rest of the album, so we won't just buy individual tracks but spring for Michael when it comes December 14, right? And if that doesn't turn out to be a treasure trove of self-suppressed Jackson genius after all, we'll just assume that the label is holding on to the real gems for the posthumous albums that are yet to come in future Christmas buying seasons. That's why they call us poptimists.