Michael Jackson - Xscape Review
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 05.13.2014
Michael Jackson's second posthumous album hits stores today, but can L.A. Reid and Timbaland make Xscape an LP worthy of the King of Pop or is it another misfire like 2010's Michael? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
1. "Love Never Felt So Good" (3:54)
2. "Chicago" (4:05)
3. "Loving You" (3:15)
4. "A Place with No Name" (5:35)
5. "Slave to the Rhythm" (4:15)
6. "Do You Know Where Your Children Are" (4:36)
7. "Blue Gangsta" (4:14)
8. "Xscape" (4:04)
Five years after the passing of Michael Jackson, people are still talking about the King of Pop like he just passed yesterday. Whether it is the unmistakable fingerprint he left on the course of popular music, the strange circumstances of his personal life, his undeniable stage presence or the shocking manner of his death and the way his family has fallen even further apart since he passed on, it's still nearly impossible to escape the shadow that Jackson casts over mainstream pop culture.
And yet within those five years passed, we never received any sort of music befitting his legacy. Despite the glut of posthumous albums that generally follow in the wake of a beloved artist's death, the only post-mortem music released came on the desperately mishandled Michael in 2010. That album was surrounded with condemnation from people close to Jackson and three of the tracks were claimed to be done by a Jackson impersonator. Jackson's estate, Sony and Epic are looking to recover from that mistake with their second selection of Jackson tracks and the good news is that with Xscape, they've largely succeeded.
Xscape may have been greeted with great trepidation from many music listeners because of how badly we were burned with Michael, but Epic and Sony seemed to have learned their lesson. Most of that credit has to go to L.A. Reid, who took personal control over this one. Reid, who is the chairman of Epic, took it upon himself to find the best unreleased Jackson tracks that he could and enlisted Timbaland to help him shepherd the project. The song selection does have its ups and downs; the biggest problem is that many of these tracks have been heard before when they were leaked online in the years since Jackson's passing. However, the demo versions are markedly different from what Reid and Timbaland have assembled here and the difference is night and day (and not just because Justin Bieber is no longer featured on any of them). Where Michael was bloated with guest artists and featured scraps of Jackson's vocals, Xscape includes full songs that were simply never quite nailed down right. With Reid and Timbaland working from tracks originally produced by the likes of Paul Anka, Dr. Freeze and Babyface you have a group of producers who know what they're doing and have the best of Jackson's unfinished works to deal with.
When you get a chance to listen, it becomes evident that they had some great material to work with. The opening track "Love Never Felt So Good" has a warm, disco-pop vibe with a hand clap-accentuated beat that complements Jackson's vocals nicely, for example. This is a song that could have easily fit right within any of Jackson's earlier efforts and not sounded out of place, yet it also sounds contemporary thanks to Anka's reworking of the track he originally produced. "Chicago" is an early highlight, a fantastic example of Jackson's storytelling. As he musically delivers a tale of a man apologizing for being the other guy in an affair Timbaland tones himself back from the kinds of musical tricks that he's become known for. Jackson's voice sounds as strong as it ever did, free of the heavy AutoTune that was criminally applied to Michael and allowed to fly on its own prodigious merits.
One of the most interesting aspects of this album is the ability to compare the finished product to the original tracks, which appear on the second disc of the deluxe edition. Many of the tracks are largely similar but given fuller arrangements. "A Place With No Name," on the other hand, is a horse of a very different color. The original version is a more stripped-down affair that very overtly uses the America classic "Horse With No Name" in the backing music. The new version of the song is an electrified affair, remixed by Stargate and uses a funky synth track combined with complex percussion work to reinvent it into a captivating piece of music. Similarly, "Slave to the Rhythm" was given an upgrade by Reid and Kevin Roberson into a sound more befitting the more aggressive dance style that he was seeking during the Dangerous recording sessions that spawned it. Jackson's lyrics form a metaphor for dancing in relation to the grueling and oppressive demands of a woman under a man who doesn't appreciate her.
Not everything works as well as you might hope on Xscape, but even the tracks that are a little less than stellar are still good. The worst on the album is "Loving You," a slow jam that is pleasant enough and features strong production work but sort of fades into the middle tier of Jackson's love songs. Even then his voice is a treasure to listen to; it's simply not as inspired as some of his best work. "Do You Know Where Your Children" are is a great song from a lyrical standpoint. It tells the tale of a child who runs away to the glamour of Hollywood and finds herself on Skid Row, the kind of socially conscious piece of music that Jackson loved during the later part of his career. It's a bit overproduced though; musically there is just a bit too much going on and while it's enjoyable it falls short of the rest of the album.
The final two songs finish the album on a strong note; "Blue Gangsta" features strong Timbaland production, with powerful percussive work underscoring Jackson's impassioned vocals about a man done wrong by the love of his life. And on the title track we have something that sounds reminiscent of his HIStory and Blood on the Dance Floor era. Producer Rodney Jerkins returns to work on the track and contains many of Jackson's hallmarks of his music while sounding not just contemporary, but perhaps even timeless as well. Combined with the rest of the songs this helps give us a retrospective of Jackson's career via music we haven't heard before (at least in this form) and it shows that whatever even his unreleased music was magical.
Standout Tracks: "Chicago," "A Place With No Name," "Slave to the Rhythm," "Blue Gangsta"
Skippable: "Loving You"
The 411: There are only eight tracks on Xscape that add up about thirty-seven minutes, but it's clearly a case of quality over quantity. Michael Jackson hasn't sounded this vital and powerful in a long, long time and it's a credit to the King of Pop as well as the production team behind the album that makes it sound so good. L.A. Reid has said the first thing he had to do with Xscape is recognize he couldn't deliver another Thriller or Off the Wall and while it's true that it doesn't measure up to those classics, it certainly stands tall in its own right and goes a long way toward erasing the sour taste of Michael.