It’s not nostalgia for Michael Jackson’s past that prevents us from thinking about him in the present tense – it’s his own pompous embrace of it. His post-Thriller career is littered with projects that have egomaniacal titles and songs that don’t live up to them, from Bad through HIStory to his recent self-canonizing “Michael Jackson: 30th Anniversary Celebration” concerts at Madison Square Garden, and Invincible, his first album in more than six years.

Nothing on Invincible is exactly terrible (though a few lines about Princess Di’s death on the anti-tabloid “Privacy” come close), which is almost a shame because sometimes tackiness can be revealing, even redemptive. Instead, Invincible is an assembly-line bore, from the mechanized R&B of “Unbreakable” and “2000 Watts” to the vapid sentimentality of ballads like “You Are My Life” and “The Lost Children.”

Yet Jackson might not be entirely to blame for the album’s failings; its sole ray of light, “You Rock My World,” was shrugged off by critics for not being sufficiently au courant, as though hitting the perfect beat with producers-of-the-moment like the Neptunes were all that mattered. Actually, with its soaring bridge and thumping piano lines, “You Rock My World” has an enduring late-seventies classicism all but absent from the album’s deliberately futuristic beats. Hearing Jackson coo “I feel the magic all in the air” transports you back to the transcendent rhythms of “Rock With You.” If the reports are true that so many tracks were cut from Invincible that Jackson could make a box set with them, surely somewhere lies the song that could reveal the life behind Jackson’s calculated invincibility.

From Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” duet with her deceased father to the awkwardly plugged-in Notorious B.I.G. raps on Invincible, it’s almost always embarrassing to hear the sampled voices of the dead. The musical equivalent of an open casket, it’s an inappropriately reverent eulogy, a way to thrust meaning upon icons who aren’t there to object.

So it’s surprising that the chorus of what may be the year’s best pop song is sung by Marvin Gaye. Maybe it’s because Music, by the Long Island?born rapper Erick Sermon, is about the transformative power of its subject matter: it fits immediately into the company of tributes like the O’Jays’ lush “I Love Music” to Cevin Fisher’s anthemic “Music Saved My Life.” Or because of perfect lines like “I wish music could adopt me.” Or perhaps just because the vocal is sampled from an unreleased song, taken for its musical fit, rather than its commercial value.

The rest of Sermon’s album of the same name rarely rises above workmanlike rap, and Gaye’s voice is what makes “Music” work, as well as what makes it such an anomaly. A sample of Gaye crooning “just like music” keeps affirming Sermon’s sentiments, giving the song a gospel call-and-response feel (the album was originally named The Sermon). Sermon addresses Gaye directly at one point, but without the overbearing reverence of Cole’s interplay with her father. “Is that true, Marvin?” Sermon asks, sounding like he’s prodding a close friend. At another juncture, he even lets Gaye finish a thought. “Without music,” Sermon starts, “Owww! I’d go crazy,” Gaye answers.

Near the end of the song, Sermon lets Gaye’s vocal – one of the singer’s best and most restrained – take over: “Music is the soul of the man,” Gaye sings. “Music makes a happy day. Music makes the clouds flow by, baby. Music is my tears inside my eyes.” It’s hard to imagine any pop song besting that sentiment.

If Sermon miraculously skirts the dead man’s curve on “Music,” an all-star group including Bono, Christina Aguilera, and P. Diddy falls right into unintentional self-parody with a limp cover of Gaye’s What’s Going On that benefits aids research as well as victims of the September 11 tragedy. Jermaine Dupri’s lifeless production drains the original’s sensuous, orchestral feel – think Gaye karaoke – while the pop stars try to out-do-good each other. Only Nas, who rhymes starkly about the madness of our current moment, taps into the tough, realist soul of the original, proving that, even with their excesses, rappers are the truest inheritors of Gaye’s soulful, sharp-eyed commentary.

Michael Jackson
Erick Sermon
(J Records)
Various Artists
What’s Going On