[22 May 2014]
At some point after 1991’s Dangerous, it was becoming evident that Michael Jackson’s choice in production techniques was going to date him faster than any tabloid scandal he had gotten himself into. HIStory, his follow-up to Dangerous and first album since the beginning of the child abuse allegations, was preposterously overblown, and 2001’s Invincible was just bad. His passing almost five years ago, although tragic and sad, essentially took him out of the driver’s seat of his own music.
His first posthumous album, titled Michael, was so carefully produced to mimic Jackson’s dated style that what was meant as a glorious tribute to one of pop’s greatest contributors came off as kind of tired and reminiscent of the glory days of Michael Jackson, only repackaged in a carbon copy kind of manner. It lacked the passion and ingenuity that made Jackson a formidable pop act. Fortunately, the producers who handled his second posthumous release of original material, titled Xscape, were seemingly given greater creative freedom and present the scant eight tracks in a style that honors Jackson but isn’t entirely confined by his dated preferences.
What stands out front and center about Xscape is Jackson’s incredible vocal performances. The album is essentially reimaginings of demo tracks meant for various other Jackson albums, so it’s surprising that the producers—from Babyface to Timbaland—managed to give Jackson’s voice such clarity and attention on recordings that probably were never meant for release. Why doesn’t Jackson sound like this on Michael? The first track, “Love Never Felt So Good”, originally a song written for Paul Anka, is a lovely and uplifting tune that hearkens back to the The Girl Is Mine days. Moreover, its solo version is miles better than the unnecessary Justin Timberlake duet version featured as the last track on the deluxe edition.
“Chicago” follows and is more characteristic of ‘90s Jackson, probably because it was recorded in 1999 and meant for the Invincible album. It’s not a magnificent song, but it’s specific and moving enough in its storytelling that you become engaged. It never truly dips into the schmaltzy preaching that Jackson tended towards, so it’s not embarrassing to listen to. The rest of the album, which disappears in a blink of an eye as it only clocks in at less than 35 minutes, pivots between ‘80s Jackson and the more New Jack Swing sound that distinguishes his later material. It plays like a nice, short “Best of” album of tracks you’ve never heard before, only dripping with nostalgia for the greatest version of Michael Jackson.
Producers like Timbaland have done a remarkable job of taking these rough recordings in various states of completion and elevating them beyond the source material, reaching places I doubt Jackson himself could have ever achieved. The deluxe edition of the album has all the original versions of each song, and while they are interesting to listen to for comparison’s sake, it’s clear that they were definitely intended as b-sides and not worthy of placement on any album. However, their updated versions on Xscape make you wonder how they were ever left off in the first place.
These newer versions never once overshadow Jackson’s talent, or his style, instead bringing out the best of his abilities via production techniques or tricks. Have a listen to tracks like “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” (originally meant to for Dangerous) or “Slave to the Rhythm” (recorded for Bad) against their original counterparts and you’ll see how this set of producers managed to accent theme and beat against the best aspects of the song in a way that varies and improves Jackson’s messages. Although most of the original versions were not truly meant as finished tracks, you can still hear what direction that Jackson and longtime collaborator Teddy Riley would have taken them.
The only real lag in the album is the penultimate track, “Blue Gangsta”, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense despite Jackson’s stunning vocals throughout. It’s simply not as captivating as most of the other tracks. When the album Michael was released and it became so evident that there was no plan to update his sound, nor was there an interest in using Jackson’s real voice, it became rather disheartening to think that the majority of the tracks in his vault may be wasted on poor production choices and absent-minded business directives.
If Xscape is an indication that Michael Jackson’s estate is willing to relinquish control over to those who can guide the tracks in places that truly groove, well, then I’ll be more than excited to hear what hidden gems rest within the recesses of Jackson’s musical catalogue. It may have taken five years, but Xscape is the posthumous album that does more than reminisce about Jackson’s legacy. It honors it.