Simon Vozick-Levinson
December 21, 2007 AT 12:00 PM EST

Michael Jackson’s Thriller: Great pop-soul album, or the greatest pop-soul album? There’s a strong case to be made for the latter, no doubt — not that it’s being helped any by the useless remixes MJ commissioned for Thriller‘s upcoming 25th-anniversary deluxe edition, many of which leaked to the ‘nets this week. Check out Kanye West’s limp twist on “Billie Jean”:

Kanye’s done some undeniably brilliant work with Jackson samples in the past — see his beats for Jay-Z’s “Izzo” (which flipped the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”) and his own “Good Life” (Thriller‘s “P.Y.T.”). Where’d that production genius go on “Billie Jean 2008”? I mean, it sounds fine, I guess — “Billie Jean” will always be an awesome song — but all ‘Ye’s added is a gratuitous boom-bap backbeat and some silly vocal adlibs (“Yeah… uh-huh… yeah-yeah-yeah… uh… number one!”) Halfway through I started wondering if I had accidentally crossed into an alternate universe and cued up the song from this classic Onion story. (“‘When I was in the studio mixing and recording, I decided ‘Tha Kidd’would work best if I kept all the music and vocals from the originalversion and then didn’t rap over it,’ Combs said. ‘So what I did is putin a tape with ‘Billie Jean’ on it, and then I hit record. The thingturned out great.'” Still funny!)

Akon, Fergie, and all kicked in passable-yet-pointless remixes of various other Thrillercuts, which are floating around on YouTube for anyone who’s interested.However, lest you think I am some sort of sample-hating Grinch — whichI am not! — let’s move on to a much, much better use of MichaelJackson’s catalog. Coincidentally, it comes from Kanye’s Chi-townbuddy, Rhymefest (a.k.a. the dude who co-wrote “Jesus Walks”). “NeverCan Say Goodbye” is the first song we’ve heard from ‘Fest’s upcomingMJ-themed mixtape, Man in the Mirror (lyrics occasionally NSFW):

The song’s producer (who I believe is named Best Kept Secret) twiststhe Jackson 5 hit into a wispy, twinkling bit of candyfloss that stillhits hard — nice.  Rhymefest’s latest rhymefest takes on a fewsubjects, including emcees who can’t stop talking about their supposeddrug-slinging résumés: “But how you yap about it, glorify and bragabout it/I’da thought you’d be so rich you wouldn’t have to rap aboutit?!” ‘Fest’s effortless flow and regular-guy steez remind us onceagain that he really oughta be a bigger star. Perhaps best of all isTalib Kweli’s guest verse, wherein we learn that my favorite hip-hopintellectual has been watching VH1’s I Love New York! (Dig hisshout-out to unjustly-booted nice guy Punk around the 1:58 mark.) No,none of this really has anything to do with Michael Jackson, but it’sdefinitely got me psyched to hear the rest of Man in the Mirror — a couple other offerings are streaming at Rhymefest’s MySpace — and, for that matter, ‘Fest’s promised proper sophomore album, El Che.

Finally, just for kicks, here’s my all-time favorite use of an MJsample, Nas’ 1994 “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” (some more NSFW lyrics): 

Will anyone ever surpass the one-two punch of Nas’ peak-era imagery and producer Large Professor’s“Human Nature” spin? Doubtful — but at least we’ve got better cellphones now than the bangin’ early-Clinton-administration brick Nas was clutching…

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