Review: Michael Jackson, Xscape

We give our first ever failing grade to Xscape, a scandalously meager and insulting Michael Jackson “album.”
Michael Jackson Xscape

opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >

People, round up your torches and pitchforks. There are monsters on the loose. The estate of a deceased genius wishes to squeeze every last cent from his already tarnished legacy. And it has joined forces with a record label, only happy to share in the spoils. Together they stalk the land, bloodthirsty and in search of their prey: Michael Jackson fans. Mary Shelley’s insights on the perils of reanimating the dead, and the moral culpability of those who seek to do so, mean nothing to them. And so, with the help of a few well-regarded experts, they have spawned a strange beast called Xscape. Don’t shun this poor, malformed creature. It never asked to exist. Xscape’s makers are another matter. They claim to have brought it to light not as a payday, but a tribute to Michael Jackson. Before they wreak further havoc, those responsible for this monstrosity need to be chased into the hills.

Xscape is far from terrible. The album’s source material is regularly pleasurable, often fascinating, and sometimes revelatory. But as merchandise – the noblest term you could apply to Xscape – most casual listeners will purchase a scandalously meager product. The “standard edition” consists of just eight songs, “contemporized” by Timbaland and a handful of guest producers (including Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Stargate, Rodney Jerkins, and John McLain). It comes at the low, low price of $8.99 on Amazon (for an MP3 download) and a buck more on iTunes. Conspicuously not included on the basic model are the original versions of Xscape’s songs. To get those, you’ll have to upgrade to the “deluxe edition”, which comes at a seven-dollar premium. But wait, there’s more. As an added bonus, “deluxe” customers will also receive a third version of “Love Never Felt So Good,” with Justin Timberlake plunked in. Why? Well, why not? Jackson’s family is strapped for cash. Epic isn’t doing much better. And they’re both looking to fleece you further over the coming years. So please, for their sake alone, act fast and purchase your copy today!

The mercenary spirit behind Xscape would have seemed less abhorrent had it contained complete dreck. Instead, these eight songs represent some of the strongest output we’ve heard from Michael Jackson since Dangerous, if not earlier. Though the revamps are distractingly overwrought (this project could have been called The20/20Xperience), Jackson’s voice, pure and fierce as ever, cuts straight through Timbaland and company’s more-is-more fireworks display. Do you remember the time when MJ could safely be taken for granted? We no longer have that privilege. I can’t downplay how exhilarating it is to hear a master at work, not close to his height, but at least delivering second- and third-tier music.

Everything worth admiring about Xscape is readily evident on Jackson’s superior early takes, which were recorded between 1983 and 1999. These demos sound utterly of their time (i.e., really dated), have zero studio polish, and are instrumentally spare. Unlike their hobbled counterparts, however, they’re also frequently charming. “Love Never Felt So Good,” co-penned by Jackson and Paul Anka, is the collection’s lone gem. Recorded shortly after Thriller, its melody could have been lifted from the Off the Wall sessions. McLain, underlining this connection on his redo, adds heaving strings and endless disco-funk embellishments. The original, on the other hand, features little more than piano and finger snaps as accompaniment. Jackson’s incredible vocal performance is allowed to breathe and take the spotlight. So it goes with the remainder of these tracks, which span the curious (“A Place with No Name,” an interpolation of America’s 1972 hit), the unfortunate (a Bad-era song called “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”) and the promising (“Slave to the Rhythm,” whose writers include Babyface and Epic’s CEO L.A. Reid).  Only “Chicago,” a pretty awful song to start with, is nominally improved by Timbaland’s synth-laden handicraft.

For an artist of Michael Jackson’s stature, unheard work should be treated with utmost reverence, no matter the quality. Anything less appears insulting. From Bob Dylan to Pavement, examples abound for how to properly empty the vaults. It can be done both exhaustively and with loving care. Jackson is now long gone. He can’t be shamed by the two posthumous releases bearing his name. (I don’t know where to begin with 2010’s ignoble Michael.) We, his living and breathing fans, are the only losers. Rough cuts, however intriguing, don’t climb pop-radio charts. Unfinished demos provide few revenue streams. And the vampires acting on Jackson’s behalf know it. Art and commerce needn’t be enemies. But as Xscape proves, one can easily crush the other.  F