You can probably count the amount of good posthumously-compiled albums in history on one hand. It should probably go without saying, but direct artist involvement tends to go a long way towards making sure a project works. Then there’s the fact that a lot of the stuff left on the cutting room floor or in the vaults isn’t up to the artist’s usual standard. Unreleased music generally goes unreleased for a reason.
2010’s Michael, the first album of “unreleased” material to be released following the death of the King of Pop, left a bad taste in my mouth. While it had a handful of good songs, it tried a little too hard to be contemporary, and there’s still a bit of dispute as to whether the vocals on certain songs actually belonged to Michael himself. I say “no,” but since the artist is no longer here to verify, I guess we’ll never know for sure.
This brings us to the present day, and Xscape. Curated by record executive L.A. Reid (a long time Jackson fan and, at one point, collaborator) and largely produced by Timbaland, it’s everything Michael wasn’t. It doesn’t seem like a blatant cash grab. Well, let me rephrase that. It’s very obviously a cash grab (as just about everything released by a dead celebrity is) but it was obviously done with reverence and care for the artist and for consumers. The key point to Xscape is that while the 8 songs are remixed (oh, excuse me, “contemporized”) for a better fit on top 40 radio circa 2014, the original versions of the songs are also included (if you purchase the deluxe version, and why wouldn’t you?) Not only does this allow for the songs to be heard in their unvarnished Michael-ness, but it also lands a swift kick to the backside of anyone who would dare question the recordings’ veracity, restoring a bit of cred to the creative minds behind the preservation of Jackson’s legacy.
Michael was a notorious studio perfectionist, and I’m not terribly surprised at the fact that these songs (recorded between 1983 and 2002) are of fairly good quality. What does surprise me, though, is that so many of these songs are as good as-if not better than-a lot of the songs featured on either of MJ’s last two studio albums, HIStory and Invincible. I’d certainly take the betrayal-themed “Chicago” or the breezy “Loving You” in a fight against “You Rock My World,” “The Lost Children,” “Threatened” or several other songs that made it onto MJ albums when the man was alive. Given a bit of a tidying up from bootleg versions that have circulated for years, these songs may sound a bit dated in their original versions, but none of them are below average. All are immaculately produced, and a surprising lot of them are smartly written. Not to say that Michael wasn’t an ace songwriter, but this album contains some of his most intriguing lyrical dramas (even if listening to “Do You Know Where Your Children Are,” a song about child sexual exploitation, is still a bit awkward. It’s a solid track, though.)
The updated production is decent and inoffensive. I was very grateful that Timbo (who helmed most of the album’s tracks) didn’t include his signature beat-boxing and mumbling into any of the songs. He does add a couple of interesting touches, including a tuba-like marching band horn that adds a bit of sizzle to “Chicago” but in truth, none of the newer versions improve on the originals. An exception can be made, though, for first single “Love Never Felt So Good.” A fairly pedestrian mid-tempo piano ballad in its original incarnation, the John McClain-produced remix amps up the nu-disco factor, making it sound like a close cousin to the uptempo tracks on Off The Wall, which (if you don’t already know) are as good as dance music has ever gotten. A third version of “Good,” featuring Justin Timberlake, adds a bit of busy percussion (a tip of the hat to “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” maybe?) but seems kind of unnecessary.
As a Michael Jackson SuperFan, my interest level in Xscape is probably a lot higher than yours, and my critical ear (in regards to this record) is probably a little sharper. L.A. & Timbaland had my money no matter what, just because there’s not a Michael-related project that I wouldn’t shell out cash for just out of force of habit. That said, it’s great that, for the first time since Michael’s death, I’ve purchased an album that has a great deal of replay value and am not feeling any sense of buyer’s remorse. If this SuperFan digs it, chances are you will, too.