Album: Michael Jackson’s Xscape**
It is sad but Michael Jackson has not released any good music since his unfortunate demise in 2009. Kurt Cobain and others like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan have certainly released better songs since their deaths. Admittedly, MJ is more prolific in death than in life. In life, due to his perfectionist standards, his releases were long-awaited but in death his standards seem to have slipped and songs and performances he had not perfected in his life are now coming to fore with some regularity.
Initially it was not bad bad. This Is It was a decent sendoff. Great performances but one was anguished by MJ’s ghoulish appearance. Michael (2010), a CD consisting of poor post-death collaborations followed and was quite terrible. Now Xscape arrives as a remix project of sorts. Timbaland and other super producers were tasked to dig up MJ’s unreleased demos – tracks from 1983 to 2002 – and contemporise them. Xscape is the result, a collection of tracks that sound good but are not great songs and sound a little off. The album is thus only for MJ fanatics and is rarely decent enough to be an essential purchase for the ordinary listener.
It was, perhaps, to be expected that the tracks would be even: they are from as long ago and as diverse a timespan as 1983 to 2002. Additionally, there are only eight songs on the album. There were several other better, unreleased songs (the incomprehensible but stunning ‘Shout’ for one), which were not released.
The album opener, ‘Love Never Felt So Good’ is breezy and carried by lovely basslines. A song co-written with Paul Anka in the 80s, the demo (available along with demos of all other songs on the deluxe version of the album) shows it to be a jazzy piano ballad with finger snaps. It is beefed into a 70s disco funk vibe by producer John Mclain. It may not be a monster hit but it starts the album off nicely.
The letdown comes immediately: ‘Chicago’ is weak, lyrically and about the girl from ‘Billie Jean’ maybe, several years on, still trying to seduce MJ after she has gotten married and had kids. "She said she had no man/ raised her kids best as she can/ she was loving me." The same idea was better done by Prince on ‘I could never take the place of your man.’ Not only does the song thus suffer in comparison, but also coming from MJ it sounds unconvincing and unintentionally hilarious when it turns out the dirty woman is still married to her husband. Even MJ himself has done better on the similarly tortured ‘Who is it?’
‘Loving You’ has a decent chorus and not much else, another one of a long line of forgettable MJ ballads (‘One More Chance’, ‘The Girl is Mine’). It should have remained buried. ‘A Place With No Name’, a reworking of America’s ‘Horse With No Name’, is the first musical highlight of the album. It is superlative electrofunk as only MJ could manage, only it is not. Much credit to the music must go to the producer as he has livened up what was mostly an acoustic guitar and drums demo. On the downside, the vocal – normally a strength for MJ – is not strong; you can tell it was a demo vocal, as MJ is not as vocally committed as he would have been on a final vocal track. It is also irksome that the song is grammatically incorrect: "Take me to the place without no name" (?!) ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ is passable. Nothing like ‘Slave 4 U’ by Britney Spears, which is miles better and similar lyrically.
‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are?’ is a terrible song to put out for MJ posthumously, given the paedophilia allegations against him. Surely better sense should have prevailed than releasing a song about child-abuse and lecturing parents to look after their children (!). Once again Prince too has done a song like this and better (‘Papa’). It is bad enough what MJ did to himself, but to see what Sony is doing to him and his legacy is unfortunate still. Not only is this song a senseless release, but what a poor cover to the album as well. One would have imagined it would serve MJ’s legacy well to play down his weirdness; here Sony play it up and make MJ look like an alien with a weird dress collar.
For all of Timbaland’s production, Xscape is weaker than the original demo. It rocks hard initially but falls apart. If you have heard the original demo with its awesome robo-funk (available in the Deluxe version of the album), the original is miles better than this horn-laden version. ‘Blue Gangsta’ continues MJ’s gangsta obsessions (‘Smooth Criminal’, ‘You Rock My World’). It shows germs of the epic bit of singing from the ‘Earth Song’, but overall it is not a song to come back to as there are much better MJ songs in similar vein one can listen to.
More than the music, it is more interesting psychoanalyzing MJ through these songs, songs which he chose to not put out for various reasons (too personal perhaps or just not good enough?). ‘Chicago’ shows why none of his female relationships would ever work. About ‘Do You Know Where Your Children Are?’, the less said the better. It at least makes one think of MJ’s own dysfunctional childhood. One can write an entire book of the psychoses revealed here. There are four tracks on the album about wanting to escape or feeling trapped. MJ might have escaped life but with Xscape he surely does not escape further personal scrutiny or infamy.
Ultimately, one wonders what MJ himself would have thought of this project. He was after all, a perfectionist, did not like remixes and chose not to put these songs out. I doubt he would have approved. For all his failings, MJ was a great judge of song, at least in the period these songs date back to; he was right to have kept these off the albums and buried. There are only a few songs worth a listen on this album. If you are a MJ fan, get the deluxe version of the album. You will like the added demos more. Other listeners may well stay away from this album and get the HIStory greatest hits pack to enjoy a stunning departed talent.