Barring a confessional breakdown during his upcoming interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer on June 14, the clearest peek we're likely to get into Michael Jackson's brain are the first two songs released from HIStory, Past, Present & Future -- Book I: the single, ''Scream'', and its B side, ''Childhood.'' ''Kicking me down/I got to get up/As jacked as it sounds/The whole system sucks,'' he seethes in the former, through teeth so clenched they may break. Even when Jackson tosses in a few of his trademark, crotch-grabbing whoo-hoos, they sound tense, no longer the joyful yelps of ''Beat It.'' Cramped, claustrophobic, a Morse code set to a beat, ''Scream'' is the sound of paranoia. It is also the sound of ''Jam,'' from ''Dangerous.'' Sister Janet is here too, but buried deep in the mix too bad, since her sweet croon adds what little swing this record has.
Still, ''Scream'' has problems deeper than musical familiarity. If Jackson wants to use the initial single from his comeback bid to deny allegations and rumors, fine. But why complicate matters with an interlude in which a ''newscaster'' reports on a young black male mistakenly ''beaten to death''? Such playing of the race card is as manipulative and cynical as the media tactics Jackson deplores.
Then, on ''Childhood,'' Jackson turns sappy. Making it clear he reads his own mountain of press clips, he mewls lines like ''It's been my fate to compensate, for the childhood I've never known,'' and the wide-screen orchestral accompaniment that engulfs him only adds to the Andrew Lloyd Weirder feel. For a brief moment, when his voice swoops elegantly into the line ''People say I'm not okay/'Cause I love such elementary things,'' he wipes away the uneasiness, and what remains is awesome vocal beauty. But that's the best that can be said for this banal denial of adult responsibility, appropriately subtitled ''Theme from Free Willy 2.'' C+