XSCAPE is the second posthumous album release from Michael Jackson featuring previously unreleased tracks that Jackson had worked on over the years prior to his death in 2009. The bittersweet verdict is that XSCAPE is really, really good.
The basic premise behind the album is that Sony and the Jackson family have unearthed these demo tracks and handed them over to current music producers to finish them off. The deluxe version of the album includes Jackson’s demos, so that listeners can hear the evolution of the tracks. The results are pretty stunning and I’d go so far as to say that XSCAPE is a better album than the last one Jackson released when he was alive, Invincible. Where that album felt clunky and over-produced, XSCAPE conjures memories of Jackson at the peak of his powers, where every song wasn’t a new riff on Bad’s “Leave Me Alone.” Part of this stems from the fact that the eight songs collected on this album were written between 1983 and 1999, so there is a wide swath of Michael Jackson eras that they reflect.
The lead song on the album and first single is “Love Never Felt So Good,” which Jackson co-wrote with Paul Anka in the early 80s. The song has been previously released by Johnny Mathis and there were apparently some behind the scenes shenanigans following the Jackson/Anka sessions that led to a settlement on the song “This Is It,” which Anka also co-wrote. Regardless of the song’s checkered backstory, it’s a great track. It could have easily fit in as a single between Off The Wall and Thriller. Three versions of the song appear on the deluxe version of the album: the reworked, modern version, the demo, and a reworked duet with Justin Timberlake. I’m partial to the Jackson solo version.
Another great track is “A Place With No Name,” which reworks America’s “A Horse With No Name” with new lyrics and a sound by way of Stevie Wonder, though Wonder doesn’t actually appear on the album. It’s a real hybrid. The title track also features some familiar musical cues as the horn section seems to be channeling “Walk The Dinosaur” by Was (Not Was). The only song that didn’t totally work for me was “Blue Gangsta.” It felt like an outtake from Invincible, which a lot of the time sounded like Michael Jackson trying to be something he wasn’t. “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” will probably draw snickers for its title, considering the legal woes that plagued Jackson through most of the last decade and a half of his life, but it’s a great track too.
Producer Timbaland worked on the majority of the tracks and he brings a modern feel to the songs, while emphasizing Jackson’s vocals throughout. In all the tracks I’ve heard from Timbaland in the past, they all have that distinct “Timbaland sound,” but that’s not the case on XSCAPE. That could also be due to the fact that so many other producers were involved as well, but it was a nice change from what I usually expect from Timbaland.
Overall, XSCAPE is a posthumous album that doesn’t feel completely like a soulless cash grab by those who stand to profit from it. It’s a nice addition to Jackson’s catalog and it gives fans something new and of quality. Unfortunately, it is also a case of “What if?” What if Jackson hadn’t passed away in 2009? Would we have gotten this album, something better, or something worse? After Invincible, I have to lean towards the last. Invincible was a lot like the Star WarsPrequels—a genius artist working without anyone to tell him “no.” It was an over-long and very drawn out affair. XSCAPE is short, sweet, and in that sweet spot between R&B and pop that Jackson once dominated. We have to wonder if that’s because people from the outside were left to complete it and make it as “Michael Jackson” as possible. And those involved did a hell of a job. One can hope we’ll get the same from the Star Wars sequels.
Download: “Love Never Felt So Good,” “Loving You,” “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”
XSCAPE is available in stores and on iTunes.