If you’re more anxious than excited to tap play on a posthumous album—let alone a posthumous album from an icon, a childhood hero—your instincts are probably correct. Look no further than the fallen King of Pop’s first vault excavation, 2010’s Michael, for an exercise in “contemporizing” (barf) original demos, half-finished potential classics and outtakes that fall flat and are, at best, forgettable and, at worst, a slash at the shins of a great legacy.
But Michael Jackson fans (i.e., pretty much all of us, no?) should shed their apprehension and give Xscape—purposely given a one-word, risqué-lite title to align with his classic LPs—a spin. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Meticulously curated and polished under the guidance of by executive producer and dance-floor czar Timbaland, Xscape culls eight potential singles from 19 years of Jackson’s unreleased solo output. It’s remarkable that a cobbled collection of eight tunes from 1983 to 2002 can sound this cohesive and this good.
Xscape wins because Jackson’s quivering voice remains foremost in the mix, and the beats, for the most part, smack that sweet spot between what could jolt in the club today and what Jackson himself would green-light.
Of course, it helps that disco rhythms are weaseling their way back in vogue and that the mere sound of Jackson’s voice in its prime—the sure-thing lead-off “Love Never Felt So Good” was plucked from 1983(!) and written with Paul Anka, who’s now 72—warms us to the core. (A bonus version of the single features Timbo pal Justin Timberlake, who also co-directs the video, but otherwise the afterthought guest appearances are nonexistent, and will.i.am is nowhere to be found.) More compelling is “Place with No Name,” Jackson’s re-imagined version of America’s 1972 monster “Horse with No Name,” updated by StarGate.
Tracks left on the cutting-room floor from Bad and Dangerous also shine, the shivering “Blue Gangsta” acting as a rare low point in a collection of songs that almost all could have worked their way onto one of MJ’s diamond-certified albums.
A fame-chasing narrative, “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” (originally titled with the leaner “12 O’Clock” and absent of EDM adrenaline), was slated for Dangerous, and is smartly placed in the middle of the record. The Cory Rooney-penned “Chicago,” exposing a conniving woman, failed to qualify for Invincible, but it gets juiced up by Timbaland signatures here and sounds better than most of the tracks that made that 1999 record. Ditto Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins’ title track: “Xscape” is the only song of the eight that welcomes its original producer back to touch up the canvas, and it paints a happy disco sheen over the cage of fame Jackson unintentionally constructed around himself. Of course, MJ’s iconic high-pitched yelps and ad-libbed chirps dance throughout. Shamone!
And it’s around that point when you either forget that you’re listening to what a cynic would deem an estate cash-grab of leftovers or you no longer care. You’re just listening to one of the best songwriters to ever live do his thing. —Luke Fox