Michael Jackson’s ‘Xscape’: Album Review

May 13th, 2014 // 3 Comments
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Xscape is a prickly proposition. On the one hand, it’s a rare treat to hear ‘new’ tunes from the greatest pop star of all time. On the other, the LP is comprised of material Michael Jackson deemed unworthy of release, and even the involvement of the hottest producers in the game can’t hide the fact that this is the musical equivalent of Frankenstein — a soulless hodgepodge of demos from different eras cobbled together to make an unnatural whole. But, like old Frank, it’s impossible to deny that an unexpected spark of life surges through this monster.

Let’s start with the good news. Xscape is a marked improvement on the King of Pop’s first posthumous release, 2010’s abysmal Michael. The songs have been curated with more care and the assorted producers treat the source material with a reverence that was lacking last time. Meaning there are no unwarranted verses from 50 Cent (or any other rapper, for that matter) or legacy-tarnishing filler.

The brief eight-song set also boasts the first true gem to be unearthed from MJ’s vault of unfinished demos. “Love Never Felt So Good” wouldn’t sound out of place on HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I. It benefits enormously from the current resurgence in early ‘80s disco, which results in the breezy mid-tempo jam being simultaneously on-trend and utterly authentic to its era.

Even the studio tinkering on the track is minimal. I can take or leave the version with Justin Timberlake (it’s more of a marketing tool than an artistic necessity) but the original is a fully-fledged disco delight that lilts along beautifully. And there’s a simple reason why “Love Never Felt So Good” stands out from the pack. Michael actually deemed the song worthy of release when he handed it over to Johnny Mathis in the early ‘80s. (His version appears on 1984 LP Special Part Of Me).

While nothing quite matches the quality of “Love Never Felt So Good”, there are a bunch of fascinating near-misses, mostly from the Bad era. “Loving You” is an achingly pretty ballad with a subtle, Motown-inspired production courtesy of Timbaland. He shows remarkable restraint – letting Michael’s soulful vocal run free over airy percussion and ragtime piano.

Another worthwhile Bad reject is the worryingly-titled “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”, which, at least initially, seemed like a genuinely tasteless inclusion. The finished product, however, is a surprising raw and powerful cut that also serves as a potent reminder that Michael was at his best when exploring serious issues in a pop framework.

While MJ had his fair share of love songs and dance floor anthems, nobody made gritty subject matter more palatable and catchy than the king of pop. “Billie Jean” (unwanted pregnancy), “Black Or White” (racial discrimination) and “Earth Song” (damage to the environment) were all packaged into pop hits. As such, an angry anthem about street kids (and the dangers they face) was well within his purview. The jittery synths and jagged guitar give the track a modern twist, while the vocal ticks are vintage Michael.

Another Timbaland production, “Chicago” has been doing the rounds for doing the rounds online for a couple of years under the title “She Was Loving Me”. The cleaned up version found on Xscape still seethes with anger and chugs along inoffensively enough. “Blue Gangsta” – a track Michael recorded in the late ‘90s – is an even more furious statement. It sounds like an unfinished “Scream” or undercooked “Smooth Criminal”. Like many of the tracks from that era, there are paranoid overtones and slightly unsettling lyrics (“look what you done to me, I can no longer smile”). It doesn’t sit well with the melodic jams on Xscape and the production is simply too busy for Michael’s fragile voice.

That leaves the title track (an engaging but undeniably dated-sounding Darkchild number about a bad relationship) and a duo of underwhelming cuts that really should have stayed locked away on Michael’s laptop. “Slave To The Rhythm” is a melody-free excursion in over-production, while the curious, America-sampling “A Place With No Name” is in desperate need of a chorus. So where does that leave you? With an album that will be a genuinely rewarding experience for super fans and a patchy but fascinating listen for everyone else.

Best Song That Wasn’t the Single: “Loving You” a sugary sweet radio hit.

Full Disclosure: As a life-long Michael Jackson fan, I desperately wanted Xscape to be worthy of his legacy. It comes fairly close.

Idolator Score: 3.5/5

Mike Wass

idolator

  1. im gonna make this as short as possible

    love never felt so good sounds like an 80′s song and yes its good but it doesn’t fit anywhere on mL’s 1995 history album ( people please go and listen ) and it says all we need to know about how you know nothing about mj or maybe even music in general plus its a 1995 album and in general its an all attack on the media and injustice mj suffered.

    to start reviewing DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR CHILDREN ARE with the sentence or words like “worryingly-titled” and “tasteless inclusion” tells us everything you are about, a rating or attention seeking reviewer or maybe even a sheep for another power plus to deem it a bad reject is wrong as mj works on a lot of songs and yes some of them i can understand why he rejected them but sometimes they r rejected for a million other reasons other than “unworthy” PLUS mj appeared to have loved the song otherwise he would not have worked on it to a point of completion. it sounded ready for release when it was leaked way back in 2010.

    also, to describe the title song xscape as a dated sound is to call love never felt so good dated except if it were not for the maybe resurgence of 80′s sound.

    yes i agree its a short number of tracks, actually for us fans its even worse as we already have 6 of those including the title song which was leaked waaaaayyyy back in 2003. and yes i agree the songs don’t fit together but what can u do ? its a compilation of songs and not a new album produced by mj himself. but to say its a worthy title of his legacy is really streching it a bit.

    i urge all people ( not including mj fans ) to click on google or even wikipedia and you will have all the info u need on mj plus there the fan clubs which u can know everything u need to know about mj and his music better than any other so called reviewer.

    peace out

  2. Trulyric

    SMH, Its so sad that instead of just appreciating this body of work, we ask pointless questions like will he approve? or would Michael Release some of the songs on this project because of the production behind it. The point is that we don’t know what he would have wanted, but im pretty sure he is not turning in his grave because we are trying to keep his music and the Legacy alive. People talk to damn much and always have something to say.. If i died and if i was the greatest releasing my music could be the best thing anybody could do, it not gonna hurt his name at all… Not one track on that album is bad not one, aLL PRODUCTION IS SOILD!! So what is the problem?? Shut up

    • JD

      TrulyRic, you the one ain’t saying nothing. Your opinion that “all production is solid” is not shared by everyone. Get over yourself, there’s nothing wrong with people talking about and reviewing this music, just like every other release.

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