music review – Michael Jackson, Xscape

Xscape is the second posthumous Michael Jackson release and its standard edition is also surprisingly short. It contains no more than eight tracks, revamped versions of demos Jackson, famous for his perfectionism, deemed unworthy of making it onto an actual album. The Michael Jackson Estate and a slew of producers led by Timbaland apparently disagreed and decided to put them out anyway. It’s something I could write a very cynical article about, but there’s really not much of a point in doing so; this collection is out now and you just want to know if it’s worth listening to. The short answer is yes, but not by much.

In an attempt to update the sound of Jackson’s demos, recorded between 1983 and 2002, the producers have applied their know-how of modern pop music to the King of Pop’s raw material, with the unwelcome result that, musically, the songs are often disappointingly colorless and conventional. ‘Chicago’, ‘Slave To The Rhytm’, ‘Blue Gangsta’ and ‘Xscape’ sound like your middle-of-the-road hip-hop-tinged pop tracks, their production unnervingly pedestrian. The arrangements themselves are also not up to snuff compared to MJ’s older albums, no wonder when dealing with unfinished song ideas that were never meant to show up on a release in the first place, not in their current state at least. All these tracks have got going for them is Jackson’s voice, and his vocals are the only reason these songs are still somewhat enjoyable: Michael’s ability to sound fierce and raw one moment, fragile and smooth the next, to blend both male and female singing characteristics, have always made him one of pop’s best singers, if not the best.

The other half of the collection fortunately fares better though: ‘Love Never Felt So good’ is a fantastic soul-disco track, ‘Loving You’ unmistakable sugary sweet pop material (even though the base drum’s way too prominent in the mix) and ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are’ a catchy and danceable song with a sociopolitical sensibility. Surprisingly it’s Jackson’s ‘A Place With No Name’ that stands out, basically a cover of America’s ‘A Horse With No Name’. Producers Stargate and Dr. Freeze got rid of America’s recognizable guitar chords, replaced them with rhythmic synths with a sound straight from the Dangerous era and even took the liberty to actually build on the demo, with stunning results: the added bridge is Xscape‘s best moment, a beautifully balanced composition that highlights MJ’s vocals and ends in a satisfying climax.

In the end Xscape is a mediocre release that’s barely saved by the King of Pop’s unique and captivating vocals. The production leaves much to be desired and in most cases proves to be an example of what not to do. 6/10

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