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"Xscape, the man with the pen that writes the lies
That hassle this man
Xscape, I do what I wanna 'cause I gotta face
Nobody but me."
With the release of Michael Jackson’s first posthumous album -– 2010’s sadly mediocre, critically-panned Michael (even many longtime fans dismissed it) -– it became very clear that the two co-executors of the Jackson estate, entertainment lawyer John Branca and former A&M Records executive John McClain, had to seriously reconsider how to go about any future posthumous projects, both in terms of musical collaborators and choice of unreleased song material. There is no shortage of songs in the vaults thanks to Michael Jackson’s impressive work ethic. As a workaholic, Michael Jackson worked up to 16-18 hours at a stretch, and it wasn’t unusual for the prolific artist to work on as many as 70 songs for each album. With this abundance of song material at his disposal, it was a daunting task for executive producer L.A. Reid to search through the archives in order to select the songs for Michael Jackson’s second posthumous album, Xscape. Another substandard release like Michael could’ve easily labelled the Jackson estate as “grave robbers”.
Executive producer L.A. Reid eventually narrowed it down to eight songs, all of which originate from sessions that took place between 1983’s Thriller and 1999’s Invincible. He then enlisted super producer Timbaland to oversee the project in collaboration with J-Roc, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, plus Norwegian production team Stargate, and, fortunately, Xscape is so well-executed that the King of Pop would most likely have approved of the final product.
Some critics and fans openly criticize the concept of these posthumous albums since the songs have all been largely refashioned/retooled, adding new layers of sounds and effects to the original tracks/demos, and because they are being released without Michael Jackson’s creative approval. But what the detractors seem to forget –- or deliberately ignore –- is the fact that however many timeless songs Michael Jackson wrote on his own, he frequently relied on collaborators to realize his visions, whether it be legendary producer Quincy Jones (the albums Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad), songwriter Rod Temperton (the hit singles Rock With You, Off The Wall, Thriller), producer/songwriter Teddy Riley (the hit singles Remember The Time, Jam, In The Closet), Siedah Garrett (the hit single Man In The Mirror), producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (the hit single Scream), and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins (the hit single You Rock My World). Even though Michael Jackson were indeed capable of playing a few instruments, he would often prefer to sing the chords and arrangements that he heard in his head or bring his collaborators –- musicians, producers, engineers –- demos of voice orchestrations such as beatboxed rhythms. Rob Hoffman (sound engineer): “He would sing us an entire string arrangement, every part, had it all in his head, harmony and everything. Not just little eight bar loop ideas. He would actually sing the entire arrangement into a micro-cassette recorder complete with stops and fills.”
What’s more, Xscape sounds every bit the labor of love that it is. Everyone involved has been extremely respectful towards Michael Jackson’s iconic and beloved musical legacy; Xscape sounds very much like music that Jackson could’ve created with his collaborators of choice (some of the producers actually worked with him on other projects). Equally important is the estate’s decision to include both the original demo-like recordings and the re-recorded tracks on the deluxe edition, which is most definitely the version to own. It’s interesting being able to compare the revamped versions to the early, unfinished recordings; surprisingly, several of them are equally good.
Love Never Felt So Good is a dance-friendly old-school Soul/Disco song that should warm the nostalgic hearts of all major fans of Jackson’s classic Off The Wall album (1979). The deluxe edition contains all of three versions of this song: the stripped-down, ballad-like original demo, and two instrumentally enhanced re-recordings, one of which also features additional vocals by Justin Timberlake (a self-confessed fan, whose hit single Rock Your Body is very reminiscent of early Michael Jackson). The latter version was released as Xscape’s first single. Loving You is another charming track with a warm retro feel. Jackson’s own demo/R&B-inflected arrangement consists of early 1980s vintage keyboards, programmed drums, and what sounds like synth bass, whereas the reinterpreted version by Timbaland sounds equal parts late 1970s Soul and contemporary R&B. Both versions are captivating in their own right and true to Michael Jackson’s musical style.
And then there’s A Place With No Name. The original recording was pretty much a carbon copy of Folk-Rock trio America’s 1972 classic A Horse With No Name, but Norwegian production team Stargate’s reworking employs a synth motif that transforms the song into a wildly different beast more akin to Jackson’s 1987 hit The Way You Make Me Feel. Slave To The Rhythm, Do You Know Where Your Children Are and Xscape bring to mind the intensity, anger, desperation and occasional joy of the singer’s 1990s output, while the impassioned Chicago, with its deep-bass groove, and the Timbaland-produced Blue Gangsta –- a sequel of sorts to Jackson’s 1987 hit single Smooth Criminal –- both originate from the Invincible sessions. Xscape is as focused, coherent and satisfying as any fan could possibly hope for a posthumous album to be. It really would've been a shame, if these songs had stayed in the vaults.