An Oral History Of Michael Jackson’s ‘Xscape’ Album

Features

/ May 12, 2014

When you get over the novelty of it all, a blissful kind of shock rushes over you. It then sinks in that Michael Jackson’s latest posthumous album Xscape is a damn sneaky good testament to an artist that lived to entertain ’til the last days of his headline-dominating life. There’s a lot of credit to go around. Let’s start with John Branca, the co-executor of Jackson’s whirling estate. It was Branca who dusted off a collection of tracks that included the surprise 1983 unreleased gem “Love Never Felt So Good,” a post-disco foot stomper written by… Paul Anka??? Yes, that’s the same OG lyricist who penned Frank Sinatra’s swaggering anthem “My Way.”

The task of pulling the entire project together fell at the feet of Epic CEO L.A. Reid, who promptly got on the phone to recruit bombastic music visionary Timbaland to do the heavy lifting. Rounding out the focused production unit: Norwegian production duo Stargate (Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen) and longtime Jackson collaborator Rodney Jerkins, who at the start balked at the thought of placing his name on what he earlier viewed as sub-par MJ material. But Reid pinned him down. Indeed, Xscape has defied expectations.

VIBE rounded up the major players behind the 8-song release. This is the Oral History of Michael Jackson’s Xscape. —Keith Murphy

LET’S MAKE A MICHAEL JACKSON ALBUM (Fall, 2013)

JOHN BRANCA (Co-Executor of the Michael Jackson Estate): L.A. Reid did not let us or the fans down. His passion was evident from the beginning.

L.A. REID (Co-Founder of LaFace Records; Currently the chairman and CEO of Epic Records): It started last year of September. No one asked me to oversee this project. It was the other way around. I asked to do it, because being at Epic Records we call this the House That Thriller Built. “Love Never Felt So Good” was the song that really launched the recording process. When I heard that it was just Paul Anka playing piano and Michael singing I smiled. It was as if the sun came out. That day became a beautiful day because that music was coming through my speakers and into my soul. From there I said, “Okay, if the world hasn’t heard this, then there’s an album to made.”

JOHN BRANCA: John McClain just did a brilliant job producing “Love Never Felt So Good”. From the moment you hear it you know the song is special. When it hits the chorus with the congas, you’re on top of the world. Really a great job. [And] Timbaland was an inspired choice by L.A. His work on the album has an immediacy and relevancy to it that is just fantastic. He is one of the chief reasons that the album is getting such a great response.

TIMBALAND (Grammy winning producer who oversaw most of the production on Xscape): I was very apprehensive about getting involved in this project. I did this album because of Michael Jackson. It completes my legacy. But my issue was I didn’t want to work with somebody that wasn’t here. Michael is someone I grew up on. The whole thing took me back to Aaliyah and Static [Major]. So I really had to deal with some things working on this Michael project.

L.A. REID: I didn’t want to go to anyone else to lead this project… only Timbaland. Timbaland is my number one favorite producer in the business. He’s like Muhammad Ali production-wise… he’s been the champion at least three times. My son Aaron set up the meeting and I went to Timbaland’s studio and he was working on his own album. There was a lot of people in the room so I just asked him to step out of the room for a second and I had a private chat with the man. I just said to him, “I want to do something really, really special. How does this sound? Michael Jackson produced by Timbaland.” He said, “I like how that sounds.”

TIMBALAND: [Xscape] brought out a lot of emotions. It took me a week to get through it. Every time I would play a song I would be like, “Put on something else…I can’t do this right now.” But once I started getting into it and was at ease with it and prayed about it, the music started to come to me. And I’m going to be honest with you, listening to those raw tracks of Michael made me cry. He’s not here to see this. So to hear him singing… man. I always tell people I don’t care who you are and what you aspire to be. You will never be Michael Jackson. Usher is Usher. And Justin [Timberlake] is Justin. Those two guys are amazing. But there’s no comparison to Michael Jackson. None.

L.A. REID: I went to the others after Timberland had done all that he could do and was sort of exhausted [laughs]. I went to Stargate and Rodney [Jerkins] because I love them as well. You have to go to people you trust, and I trust Stargate. And Rodney was the producer that had already worked with Michael.

RODNEY JERKINS (Grammy winning producer who worked on the bulk of Michael Jackson’s last studio work, 2000’s Invincible): Me and Michael first worked on “Xscape” in 1999. L.A. will tell you I was a jerk through the whole process [laughs]. I care. Michael was a dude that was a friend of mines. I had a good relationship with him. He knew my family and I knew his family. So I would tell L.A., “I’m not doing a song until I hear the rest of the album.” Even when he would say, “Well, we have to do this first,” I would say, “I don’t care. I got to hear the whole album before I finish a song.” I wanted to make sure that everything stood up to what Michael would have wanted. That was important to me.

TIMBALAND: L.A. and me involved Stargate because we always felt their production. And by them coming from another country, Michael always stayed in Europe. To me Stargate are the hottest producers across the water. There was one record I felt like it needed their touch. They did a great job and nailed it.

TOR ERIK (One half of the hit-making duo Stargate, who has produced a string of hits for heavyweight headliners including Ne-Yo, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Katy Perry): L.A. came down to the studio and said I want to talk to you about Michael. To be honest with you my first thought was, “Oh no, not another [posthumous] album.” Sometimes the material isn’t strong enough and that was my initial worries. We met Michael and wanted to work with Michael, and we are huge fans of his. But we didn’t want to do anything to tarnish his musical legacy by taking some songs that are just leftovers. So L.A. says, “Okay, I hear you. Let me just play you some music.” He played a couple of things, but the song that really impressed us was “Blue Gangster.” It was a six minute piece of music and Michael was singing his heart out and the production was really beautiful and really up to date. That song made me see the light where this can really be something. But some of the songs were already done so we asked L.A., “What do you have for us?”

L.A. REID: I’ve had so many hits with Stargate from Rihanna to Jennifer Lopez. They’re the kind of guys you go to when you are very clear about exactly what you want. I call Stargate pinch hitters. You go get those guys when you want them to swing, which inning, and which play. You call Stargate and you are going to get a hit.

TOR ERIK: We basically turned L.A. down after the meeting because some of the earlier tracks they wanted us to work on we didn’t find them interesting. So L.A. called us a couple of days later and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… I got one more.” He sent it to us and all we heard was the a cappella. And I was just floored. It was just a great moment of Michael Jackson vocals. From top to bottom some fantastic harmonies. That was the song that got us on board…”Place With No Name.”

L.A. REID: “A Place With No Name” was originally titled “A Horse With No Name,” which was a song by a band called America. And so Michael re-wrote the song and re-wrote the lyrics with America’s permission and titled it “A Place With No Name.” When I took it to Stargate the way they approached it was so creative. They listened to the time signature of the song, which was a 6/8 time signature. So the guys from Stargate asked, “Which songs have had the 6/8 time signature?” There were songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” which was an influence. And “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood was also an influence when they approached it. It’s a really special record.

TOR ERIK: That time signature came about because of Michael’s vocals. I didn’t even want to hear the original demo. All I wanted to hear was Michael’s vocals. And when I listened to Michael he’s in the booth snapping his fingers, clapping his hands and stomping his feet. He’s doing all these energetic things that gave us a vibe where this track should go. That’s when we started to experiment with the bassline. We didn’t even have the drums on it yet, just the bassline and a chord progression that really worked for something more danceable. Then we started working on drums. But all of that stuff really came from Michael Jackson.