Michael Jackson Almost Recorded Jennifer Lopez’s “If You Had My Love” & Other Insights From ‘Xscape Origins’ Author Damien Shields
A year has passed since the arrival of Michael Jackson’s second posthumous album Xscape and fans are still trying to process it. There’s no denying the appeal of hearing ‘new’ material from the greatest pop star of all time, but the project also raises a number of uncomfortable questions. For starters, where did the songs come from? How did MJ feel about them? Were they ever seriously considered for release?
Investigative journalist Damien Shields found answers to these questions (and many more) by turning to the collaborators, the engineers and producers, that worked with Michael on the original versions of the tracks that comprise Xscape. His interviews, combined with painstaking research, shape Xscape Origins — a new book that puts the focus back where it belongs. On the pop icon’s unique genius.
It’s fascinating to read about Michael’s incredible attention to detail and ability to leave even the most-seasoned producer speechless in the studio. The book also gives some insight into the incredible pressure MJ was under, particularly during the Invincible sessions where it appears that his best interests weren’t always at heart. I recently spoke with Damien about his research and he revealed another tantalizing tidbit. Namely, that the King of Pop briefly considered recording Jennifer Lopez’s debut single “If You Had My Love”! Find out more below.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the posthumous material. But your book helped me appreciate Xscape more.
I know how you feel. I’m not a huge fan of a posthumous stuff, to be honest. I don’t think that’s the right tact to take… there’s a lifetime of material there. 40 years of hard work that he actually gave us that they have a chance to share with the next generation.
But, having said that, it’s their prerogative to do whatever they like with the material. The estate and Sony have every right to do it, so if they do, I just feel we should know where it comes from. I think that Michael’s art sometimes does need to be explained. It needs to be articulated why it didn’t get on certain projects, because it shouldn’t be judged as harshly as a “Billie Jean” or a “Will You Be There” or “Earth Song” — because those were the ones that Michael deemed fit for public consumption.
He didn’t deem these to be terrible songs, but at the same time, he didn’t put them on the same level of those other ones, otherwise he would have released them.
Right. How do you judge an album that the artist didn’t sign off on?
I definitely wasn’t comfortable with the documentary that went with the Deluxe. That was what inspired the book a little bit, too. The fact that these producers… most of them never worked with Michael. Rodney Jerkins was an exception. All of them were show-ponying around the room, saying how they supposedly brought their greatness to Michael’s greatness and I’m just like, “You kind of just deleted Michael’s greatness and then put your own music on it. This is a Timbaland song with MJ vocals.”
Yeah, I didn’t feel too comfortable about it. People like Matt Forger, John Barnes and Michael Prince, they were the engineers of these songs. They’re the architects. They drew the blueprints. Let’s give them the credit that they deserve. Without those original versions, we don’t have the Xscape album, because those remixes can’t be done without the original versions.
That documentary didn’t touch on Michael’s artistry at all. They just literally focused on these remixes completely and utterly, which is really disappointing, because you want to learn about Michael giving a producer who’s worked with every artist on a planet chills that they’ve never had before. You want to hear about him setting fire to a room and having everyone just frozen.
That’s interesting! That’s crazy, and that’s why Michael Jackson doesn’t have an intellectual readership the way that Bob Dylan or The Beatles do — people haven’t tapped into that area of him and actually written about it. So, people can’t study him in that way, so without books like this, without people telling their stories, the world will never actually know how freaking amazing this guy was.
How did you actually start gathering information? Was everyone happy to tell their stories?
I knew most of the sources that I interviewed for this project. I was already friends with them from a previous project that I’m still researching and haven’t finished yet. I reached out to all of the people on that list. I had already interviewed a lot of these people for that project, so I basically said, “I’m doing this other project.” They were just like, “Oh, yeah. Cool. Let’s talk about it.”
So a lot of the groundwork had already been done without me even realizing it. So, I’ve gone back and looked over all my interviews, and read my transcripts, and plucked all of the relevant things that related to this particular project, and then filled the gaps with what wasn’t there already.
One of the things I took away from your book, excuse me if I read between the lines a little too much, was that Michael seemed to be surrounded by too many “Yes Men.” Would you agree?
I think you’re smack bang on target. Let me tell you the story about Jennifer Lopez. Rodney Jerkins was given the opportunity to meet with Michael. I detail that in the book. What I don’t talk about in the book is the songs that he got the opportunity to play for Michael. There was 15 or 20 of them, and basically they were in the room, and Rodney was going through track-by-track and playing them. Everyone was wondering, “What’s Michael thinking? What is he going to choose?” [Songwriter/head of Sony’s A&R at the time] Cory Rooney had only pre-selected one of those songs and had Jennifer Lopez record it the previous year.
It was already allocated to her. He’s sitting there and the way he explained it to me was that he had everything crossed that Michael would not want that song, because that song had already been chosen to be released to radio two months later and was going to be Jennifer’s first ever single. The lead single from her On The 6 album. Rodney had already produced it. It had already been recorded, vocals, everything was done.
So, they’re listening to all of these songs and get to the end, and Michael was kind of like, “there’s one song on there that I like. It’s got a really great groove and it’s track number seven.” Everyone was like, “Oh, fuck. That’s the one.” That was “If You Had My Love.” Everyone’s like, “Shit, now we’re going to have to argue with the King of Pop because that’s already going to be Jennifer’s first song and it’s already in motion and is going to radio in two months.” How do you possibly tell Michael Jackson no?
So, they’re all sweating on it, and then he goes, “But, it should be sung by a female, so I’m not going to take it. You should find a female singer to sing it.” Everyone sighed and the whole room was relieved. For me, that just goes to show that Michael Jackson himself had an ear for hit material, because that song went on to be Rodney Jerkin’s first Billboard Hot 100 number one and it was Jennifer Lopez’s first Billboard Hot 100 number one. Michael knew it was a hit. It was the only one of Rodney’s songs that he gravitated towards, but he also had the intuition to know that a female should sing it for it realize its best potential.
As much as the Invincible album itself didn’t really soar and there weren’t any huge hits on it, Michael himself, when no-one’s in his ear telling him what to do, he still knew a hit song when he heard it.
That’s fascinating to me because I balked at some of the feedback you documented Michael getting during the Invincible sessions. It sounds like he had so many different people in his ear.
When you say “having people in his ear” — those are the exact words that Cory Rooney told me. I didn’t print that, either, but he said he just felt there were too many people in his ear telling him what was best for him, and he was persuaded by people that maybe didn’t have Michael Jackson’s best interest in mind, that had their own. I’m not going to give a particular name. I would hate to be quoted on saying who they were, but people wanted to get their songs on the album and a lot of those people were quite young at the time.
The hindsight of the thing was like, as I explained in the “She Was Loving Me” chapter, the song that Cory Rooney did, he said he was in the environment where he could have done six or seven songs for Michael too. He had that access to him, he had that comfort level with Michael. They had a great friendship, they trusted each other. He was at the top of the record label. The only person above Cory Rooney in the record label was Tommy Mottola. He could have done the whole album if he really wanted to, but he didn’t feel that was what was best for Michael.
I listen to songs like “Xscape” and “She Was Loving Me” and just wonder and dream about, if they were mixed and mastered, and given the full scale production that an album song would get, how could they have possibly not have been included on Invincible?
I was also surprised by Michael’s habit or reviving old songs when recording a new album — even if he didn’t use them.
Michael had a history of delving into his archives and digging old things up, and re-purposing them for a new project. Like, “Little Susie,” for example, he did that in 1978. That didn’t come out until the HIStory album in 1995. 17 years later.
That original version of “Little Susie” that he did in ’78 is completely orchestrated in exactly the same way. The song is identical. Even the vocals are almost the same. His voice did not change at all. One great way to show that his voice didn’t change is to hear him singing the same song 15-20 years apart. He was able to execute the vocals flawlessly and identically to his teenage and early 20s self all the way through to his late 30s and early 40s. He had this masterful ability to imitate himself. Not in a parody way, just that quality never left him.
You don’t have a crystal ball, but do you think any of the tracks from Xscape would have seen the light of day if Michael did not die?
Maybe “A Place With No Name,” because he was working on that… kind of had people tinkering with it in 2008. I don’t really know. He had a big list of the songs that he was focusing on, on his bedroom wall when he died. There were 27 songs or so on that list. None of the Xscape songs were on it. It’s really hard to predict. They weren’t on his to-do list at all. He had that list of 27 songs and then he had a more narrowed down list of 10 songs that he was really focusing on.
Why didn’t we get to hear those songs?
They weren’t done. They were just ideas. The songs he did in his final years are just… some of them don’t have any vocals at all. They’re just ideas. I’ll go into excruciating detail about that stuff in my next book.
Reading about the Invincible sessions… it sounded so torturous. Do you think it put MJ off working on the next one?
Torturous? Yeah, it definitely seemed to be that way. I tried to focus the book 100 percent on what was happening in the studio and just particularly with those songs, and the eras that the songs came in, but yeah, especially during the Invincible era, he was litigated against more than any other person on the planet. His health wasn’t great. He struggled with certain dependencies on certain substances, and he was desperately trying to overcome those problems, because he’s a father now, and he has the burden of wanting to be the father, so that means that he’s not able to work as feverishly because he’s the sole parent.
It’s like Brian Vibberts says in the book — he was the engineer who worked on the HIStory album and also worked with Rodney on stuff for Invincible. He said it was a totally different ballgame. The comparison is that the HIStory sessions were glamorous and the Invincible sessions were anything but. Michael would do a lot of his work over the phone. Like, he wouldn’t even come to the studio.
He would check in to see how the people were doing, but he wouldn’t necessarily show his face for a lot of those sessions. The early Invincible sessions were different. I feel like those 1998/1999 sessions, Michael really was able to just be in the music, and as it got on, as it became 2000/2001, he just became farther and farther away from that.
That would explain why, for me, Invincible isn’t quite as great as all of his other studio albums from Off The Wall to Dangerous — and why it, comparatively, underperformed.
In my opinion, there’s no such thing as good and bad decisions — there are just decisions and hindsight. For all we know, Sony could have put 15 million dollars behind that promotional campaign. They could have done the high-tech, sci-fi video that Michael had in mind for “Unbreakable.” They could have let him have that as a lead single, and they could have actually promoted the “Butterflies” track when that started to get radio traction. “Butterflies” was a chart hit without even being serviced to radio, and without even being put on CD single.
It could have been a 20-25 million-selling album with three hit singles. The hindsight is that it wasn’t. I think it could have been. No Michael Jackson song is a bad song, but if you list them in order of Michael Jackson’s best and worst songs, a lot of those Invincible tracks will be at the bottom.
You have been quite critical about some aspects of Xscape on your website, like the ridiculous “A Place With No Name” single treatment. Do you think the project does him justice?
Done him justice? Well, no. The material that they gave platforms to wasn’t material that Michael Jackson himself had done. Doing him justice, for me, would be to just leave his unreleased stuff alone for a little while. Let it cool off. Let there be a decade of celebration of things he gave to the world. Take the hologram at the Billboard Music Awards to promote “Slave To The Rhythm.” I use the word “hologram” loosely because it wasn’t even a hologram, and it wasn’t even Michael Jackson performing. It was a guy called Earnest Valentino.
He’s an American Michael Jackson tribute artist who lives in Germany that they flew in to do that performance. That, to me, is the ultimate sign of disrespect to Michael Jackson, the greatest performer in the history of the world, because if Michael Jackson took the stage to do a performance, it would have been absolutely mind-blowing as far as the quality of the performance — but what they tried to do was make something mind-blowing as far as, “I can’t believe he’s dead, but he’s on stage”… but it wasn’t even executed for me to even feel like it was him.
What am I trying to get at here? Sharing “Slave To The Rhythm” with the world as a song, on a global platform, for me it was just a bad decision. If you want to make Michael perform at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014 with a digital recreation, and have it broadcast all around the world, why don’t you use some “Billie Jean” footage? Why can’t Michael do Motown 25 all over again? Why can’t he do a different “Billie Jean” performance? Why can’t he set the world on fire with something he did? Why can’t what Michael Jackson actually put his blood, sweat, and tears to be the thing that is introduced to new generations.
The new generations are only going to get what they’re given, so if you give them a fake hologram performing a Timbaland remix to “Slave To The Rhythm,” then that’s what they’ll take. But, if you give them a digitally reconstructed Michael Jackson, authentic “Billie Jean” performance, then that’s what’s going to go viral. That’s what’s going to be performed at the Billboard Music Awards and then that’s what new generations will be introduced to.
That’s the only way, for me, that a dead artist can be viewed with true, legendary status is to simply celebrate the things that they did while they were alive. Not the things that are being recreated after their death, and flipped and cut, and sliced down the middle, then replaced with other parts. That’s not their legacy. Their legacy is what they gave us. Michael Jackson’s legacy was built between ’58 and 2009. That’s it. Celebrate that. We don’t need to continually puppeteer him around and pretend he’s still alive.
You can get your hands on a copy of Xscape Origins here. Let us know how you feel about Michael’s posthumous material in the comments below.
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