For all the snafus that marred the posthumous Michael release, the general buzz about the next one in line wasn’t dampened. Of course it helps when an artist is one of the most revered in music history to get the benefit of the doubt, but hardcore fans still haven’t been consistently keen on the way with which those in charge of MJ’s estate have gone about his vault material. For every bump in the road (The Remix Suite comes to mind), a number of his post-death collections and retrospectives have been very well done including the beautifully-packaged and compiled Hello Word: The Motown Solo Collection, the Bad 25 box set, the megamix extravaganza Immortal and the criminally underrated The Stripped Mixes.
Format notwithstanding, Xscape comes in two main flavors: a 30+ minute, eight-track disc containing reworked versions of vault material and a 17-track deluxe edition including all eight tracks in their original form plus a duet with Justin Timberlake on “Love Never Felt So Good.” For a few extra dollars, the deluxe version is by far the best value, offering the listener to hear a work-in-progress compared to a completed track as well as a DVD documentary on the project itself.
It’s difficult to call a project like Xscape an official album given that it didn’t have the artist’s full blessing, but those arguments are more barroom banter than anything. What really matters is: is the music any good? Well, it can depend upon your vantage point. Purists will claim that it’s criminal to let a modern producer touch the material, but oftentimes said purists are also, shall we say, removed from the current musical landscape. Casual listeners may be just as inclined to prefer more modern productions compared to sometimes dated techniques or sounds. Cliques aside, the material itself derives from across nearly 20 years, giving it a less than cohesive feel from an album standpoint. Jackson’s vocals sound quite different from the likes of “Love Never Felt So Good” to “Blue Gangsta,” even without the backing track clouding your judgment. Where the compilers of this project made a smart decision was to offer both versions. Everyone wins.
Remember that MJ himself was a bridge between the two worlds. Given how he literally grew up in an environment with some of the best writers and producers in the classic music era, he also was inclined to push forward his sound, bringing along the rest of music with him, challenging both the listener and those around him to embrace the future as he got older.
If the Thriller era is your preference, you’ll be elated with the results of “Love Never Felt So Good.” A modern version so good that it would be right at home on a period 45, producers John McClain, Giorgio Tuinfort and Paul Anka absolutely nailed the disco soul sound that Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton so frequently cooked up with Michael. The string arrangement is magical. The original version presented on the latter half of the disc is mostly stripped with snaps and handclaps layered with multitracked vocals and a solo piano played by Anka. The duet version with Justin Timberlake sounds forced, striking given that Timberlake typically sounds natural in a feel-good dance pop track. Perhaps it suffers from overproduction with added percussion and vocal beatboxing on top of everything else.
The brooding “Slave To The Rhythm” featuring production by Timbaland is the cream of the ‘90s tracks presented. It’s unfortunate that the pair didn’t get to work together live in studio. Timbaland proves here that a massive hit-in-the-making could be culled between them. With a bumped-up BPM pushing the threshold, it’s exactly the kind of track that would have had Jackson’s creative juices flowing with its spacey effects and Strafe-like 808s.Time didn’t permit such a pairing, though. Even with both producing music in the late ‘90s, Timbaland’s sound was geared more towards syncopation and Dirty South beats at the time. Over the past decade or so, he’s enhanced his sound considerably, expanding into more full production beyond the urban realm and successfully crossing over to mainstream radio all while still injecting idiosyncrasies and oddities to head-turning results. It would have been exciting to see Jackson perform dance moves in a primetime music video getting special promotion, but alas we’ll just have to dream.
Lyrically, Jackson covers everything from love to more serious topics like enslavement and broken families on the songs presented. As his career grew, he took more risks in what he released as singles, moving from surefire radio staples like “P.Y.T.” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” to more socially-conscious material like “Earth Song” or the controversial “They Don’t Care About Us.” For the most part, Xscape honors that legacy and should help to relieve some of the mistrust that some may have with those in charge of the icon’s estate. We should be so lucky to have L.A. Reid in charge of the next vault project if these are the kind of results he’s going to deliver.