The Thriller's gone, but Sony engineers the King's return

By Evan Serpick
Updated March 02, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Dressed in an under-stated 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.