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Michael Jackson plans a comeback

But his new album has no scheduled release date

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Dressed in an understated black suit, Michael Jackson stepped out of his Neverland seclusion and onto the stage of a half filled Carnegie Hall on Valentine’s Day to introduce a celebrity panel featuring Johnnie Cochran and Mother Love. The unlikely topic? ”Love, Work, and Parenting.”

”With two children of my own, I know the difficulty of balancing children and career — and let’s not even talk about the difficulty of finding a date,” said the reclusive star, whose son, Prince, 4, and daughter, Paris, 2, did not attend the event. His admission of availability prompted shrieks from approximately 100 poster toting, bouquet tossing fans, who stormed the dais after the 10 minute speech.

The bizarre event, part of Jackson’s Heal the Kids initiative with Orthodox rabbi and ”Kosher Sex” author Shmuley Boteach, marked the latest step in the erstwhile King of Pop’s bid to reclaim his throne. With a VH1 special in heavy rotation, a March 6 speech on child welfare (also with Rabbi Boteach) planned at England’s Oxford Union, a March 19 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a just announced Jackson 5 studio reunion, Jacko is gearing up for an all media assault that will culminate, supposedly, in his long delayed, still untitled comeback album.

Lotta promo for one disc? It might be needed. The stakes are high for both Jackson and his label, Sony, which is still smarting from recent disappointments like Ricky Martin’s ”Sound Loaded” and a lack of new product from mainstays like Celine Dion and Lauryn Hill. That might explain why, since early 1999, Sony has sunk millions of dollars into at least 30 Jackson tracks. It’s hired hot shot producers like R. Kelly, Teddy Riley, and Rodney Jerkins, reportedly paying them up to $1 million per song — a figure Sony’s publicist flatly denies.

Even so, there’s no launch date in sight. ”At this point, the only thing we can say for sure is that the album will be released in 2001,” says Michele Schweitzer, spokeswoman for Sony division Epic. The delays have frustrated many Jackson associates, who wanna be startin’ somethin’ soon. Jerkins, who produced at least eight new tracks, blames the moonwalking perfectionist himself. ”For two years, I’ve been waiting for this album to come out and for Michael to do his thing,” says Jerkins, the musical Midas behind Destiny’s Child. ”Sony’s very angry and they have every right to be. They feel like they had him cut an album, and they want him to put it out now.”

The label wouldn’t comment on Jerkins’ position, but it seems confident about the album’s prospects. Sony chief Tommy Mottola won raves from several of his execs after playing pieces of three new Jackson tracks in late January. Needless to say, Sony wants to avoid any more ”Blood on the Dance Floor,” the 1997 dud that followed 1995’s underwhelming ”HIStory” lesson. (The latter sold just 1.4 million copies in the U.S., while ”Blood” cleared an anemic 230,000.) The game plan is to infuse Jackson’s sound with more commercial hip hop elements. Though Dr. Dre declined to produce and Jackson doesn’t rap, some recorded tracks feature guest rapper ”Fats,” an unsung Jerkins discovery.

Even if Jackson’s sound is in sync with modern tastes, will Sony be able to sell the 42 year old singer to the ”TRL” crowd, many of whom were born after his 1982 landmark, ”Thriller”? ”If Justin Timberlake put out a solo CD, that would sell more than Michael Jackson right now,” says Paul ”Cubby” Bryant, music director for trendsetting New York City radio station Z100. ”If he doesn’t nail it this time, he’s screwed.” Just how tough a time he’ll have can be gauged from the response of ”TRL” crowd members like Nicole Cernek, 13. Asked about Jackson outside a recent taping at MTV’s Times Square studio, she responded, ”It’s amazing for him to come out with something after such a long while, since he’s been in jail and everything.”

Ahem. Just to clarify Jackson’s legal history: In 1993, he was investigated by Santa Barbara, Calif., police on charges that he had molested a then 13 year old boy. No charges were filed, but Jackson settled a civil claim out of court for an undisclosed, reportedly substantial sum. (Santa Barbara officials confirm recent tabloid reports that the case is still open, though the investigation has been suspended.)

Any comeback efforts will be dogged by this lingering cloud. ”For Sony, there’s no way to address the charges and come out a winner,” says Dane Venable, senior marketing director at Sony rival Elektra. ”The challenge is how to turn curiosity about the man into curiosity about the music.”

But it was curiosity about the man that brought the crowds to Carnegie Hall. Even though Jackson had shed his white glove and sequined socks — and chimp companion Bubbles was a no-show — devotees were still thrilled. ”It was surreal and awe inspiring,” says Joseph Yemish, 27, of Edison, N.J., U.S. correspondent for U.K. based fanzine King! For less committed followers, the question remains: Can all Sony’s horses and all Sony’s men make Wacko Jacko the King of Pop again? Or just the Duke of Has Been?

Additional reporting by Bob Cannon, Audrey Fan, and Y. Peter Kang