NEW YORK (Reuters) - The first official single from a controversial new Michael Jackson album was released on Monday to good initial reviews and expectations of strong digital sales.
"Hold My Hand," a duet Jackson first recorded with Senegalese rapper and record producer Akon in 2007 and was leaked in an unfinished state a year later, is a simple but catchy mid-tempo ballad with touches that will remind fans of Jackson's death last year with the opening line, "This life don't last forever."
Early reviews and Jackson fan websites commended the duet, released for digital sales on the official www.michaeljackson.com website, saying Akon had improved the song's production quality.
"There won't be any controversy about the vocals on this one. The only question is how long until it scales the charts," said The Huffington Post, noting it was already trending high on Twitter. "'Hold my Hand' isn't 'Man in the Mirror', but it's a nice consolation gift to fill the void of his absence."
"Polished up and studio-tweaked, 'Hold My Hand' is an innocuous, professionally executed ballad with probably a touch more Akon than any MJ fan can be happy with," said New York Magazine, adding it "certainly wasn't embarrassing, but not necessarily crucial either."
Jackson's Facebook book page was filled with thousands of comments on the song from fans excited about the release of the new album "Michael" on December 14. The posthumous release is the first of new Jackson material since his "Invincible" album in 2001.
"Wow I like this song," Cynthia Spence-Duffey posted on Facebook, while Edward Hoey said, "Nice song for those who are in Love." On michaeljackson.com, another post said, "That is truly MJ, but you can tell it was incomplete. How many new songs of MJ's were only 3 mins long?"
Jackson's Sony/Epic record label announced the release of the song last week, saying Akon recently completed production on the track. Two of the other upcoming tracks feature rapper 50 Cent and rocker Lenny Kravitz.
"The world was not ready to hear 'Hold My Hand' when it leaked a couple years ago. We were devastated about it," said Akon, who was known to be working with Jackson before his sudden death in June 2009 at the age of 50.
"But its time has definitely come; now in its final state, it has become an incredible, beautiful, anthemic song."
Monday's release for digital sale of "Hold My Hand" follows the streaming on the Internet last week of another new track "Breaking News" from the upcoming album, which was met with initial skepticism.
Some music critics, along with a few of Jackson's family members, have said they do not believe the vocals on "Breaking News" really belong to the entertainer. But last week Sony countered that after extensive research, it was confident the vocals are Jackson's own.
The Black Eyed Peas singer Will.I.Am however told Entertainment Weekly it was "disrespectful" to release the album.
"Whoever put it out and is profiting off of it, I want to see how cold they are," he said, and later added, "to me it's disrespectful, there's no honoring."
"Michael" has the backing of Jackson's official estate and is the latest commercial venture to capitalize on the singer's renewed popularity in death. A Cirque du Soleil show, dance videogame and a DVD set of all his pop music videos is also on its way.
(Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Jill Serjeant)