Xscape is a prickly proposition. On the one hand, it’s a rare treat to hear ‘new’ tunes from the greatest pop star of all time. On the other, the LP is comprised of material Michael Jackson deemed unworthy of release, and even the involvement of the hottest producers in the game can’t hide the fact that this is the musical equivalent of Frankenstein — a soulless hodgepodge of demos from different eras cobbled together to make an unnatural whole. But, like old Frank, it’s impossible to deny that an unexpected spark of life surges through this monster.
Let’s start with the good news. Xscape is a marked improvement on the King of Pop’s first posthumous release, 2010’s abysmal Michael. The songs have been curated with more care and the assorted producers treat the source material with a reverence that was lacking last time. Meaning there are no unwarranted verses from 50 Cent (or any other rapper, for that matter) or legacy-tarnishing filler.
The brief eight-song set also boasts the first true gem to be unearthed from MJ’s vault of unfinished demos. “Love Never Felt So Good” wouldn’t sound out of place on HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I. It benefits enormously from the current resurgence in early ‘80s disco, which results in the breezy mid-tempo jam being simultaneously on-trend and utterly authentic to its era.
Even the studio tinkering on the track is minimal. I can take or leave the version with Justin Timberlake (it’s more of a marketing tool than an artistic necessity) but the original is a fully-fledged disco delight that lilts along beautifully. And there’s a simple reason why “Love Never Felt So Good” stands out from the pack. Michael actually deemed the song worthy of release when he handed it over to Johnny Mathis in the early ‘80s. (His version appears on 1984 LP Special Part Of Me).
While nothing quite matches the quality of “Love Never Felt So Good”, there are a bunch of fascinating near-misses, mostly from the Bad era. “Loving You” is an achingly pretty ballad with a subtle, Motown-inspired production courtesy of Timbaland. He shows remarkable restraint – letting Michael’s soulful vocal run free over airy percussion and ragtime piano.
Another worthwhile Bad reject is the worryingly-titled “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”, which, at least initially, seemed like a genuinely tasteless inclusion. The finished product, however, is a surprising raw and powerful cut that also serves as a potent reminder that Michael was at his best when exploring serious issues in a pop framework.
While MJ had his fair share of love songs and dance floor anthems, nobody made gritty subject matter more palatable and catchy than the king of pop. “Billie Jean” (unwanted pregnancy), “Black Or White” (racial discrimination) and “Earth Song” (damage to the environment) were all packaged into pop hits. As such, an angry anthem about street kids (and the dangers they face) was well within his purview. The jittery synths and jagged guitar give the track a modern twist, while the vocal ticks are vintage Michael.
Another Timbaland production, “Chicago” has been doing the rounds for doing the rounds online for a couple of years under the title “She Was Loving Me”. The cleaned up version found on Xscape still seethes with anger and chugs along inoffensively enough. “Blue Gangsta” – a track Michael recorded in the late ‘90s – is an even more furious statement. It sounds like an unfinished “Scream” or undercooked “Smooth Criminal”. Like many of the tracks from that era, there are paranoid overtones and slightly unsettling lyrics (“look what you done to me, I can no longer smile”). It doesn’t sit well with the melodic jams on Xscape and the production is simply too busy for Michael’s fragile voice.
That leaves the title track (an engaging but undeniably dated-sounding Darkchild number about a bad relationship) and a duo of underwhelming cuts that really should have stayed locked away on Michael’s laptop. “Slave To The Rhythm” is a melody-free excursion in over-production, while the curious, America-sampling “A Place With No Name” is in desperate need of a chorus. So where does that leave you? With an album that will be a genuinely rewarding experience for super fans and a patchy but fascinating listen for everyone else.
Best Song That Wasn’t the Single: “Loving You” a sugary sweet radio hit.
Full Disclosure: As a life-long Michael Jackson fan, I desperately wanted Xscape to be worthy of his legacy. It comes fairly close.
Idolator Score: 3.5/5
— Mike Wass
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