It was a marketing masterstroke bundling Jackson's 15 new songs with 15 of his greatest hits. With a lavish if narcissistic 52-page booklet included, the retrospective should both remind old fans and introduce new ones to Jackson's many big-beat triumphs, from disco ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough") to new jack ("Remember the Time"). Altogether the oldies disc ensures strong sales, even if the new material won't make HIStory. And it won't.
Not that it's all weak. When Jackson hits the mark, the music is the most powerful and precise of his career. Highlights include the industrial dance nugget "Scream"—his duet with sister Janet—and the bouncy funk of "This Time Around," on which he is joined by Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G.. More impressive is the newfound maturity Michael exhibits on the slower tempos, for instance the lissome "Stranger in Moscow" and "You Are Not Alone," an uncharacteristically sweet ballad written by bump-and-grind artisan R. Kelly.
The problem is that the new volume is maddeningly inconsistent, with letdowns that range from indulgent, repetitive rock riffs ("D.S.") to fatuous, convoluted orchestration ("Little Susie"). Still, Michael has such acute instincts for rhythm and arrangement that he can make even the mundane sound majestic, as he proves on his weepy eco-lament "Earth Song." The collection's most strained listening experience may be "Childhood (Theme from Free Willy 2)," a maudlin ballad on which Jackson makes a stale, pixie-dusted plea for understanding of his eccentricities: "It's been my fate to compensate/For the childhood I've never known." Let's hope that is one piece of HIStory radio does not condemn us to repeat over and again. (Epic)