XSCAPE IN REVIEW: The Michael Jackson album that isn’t a Michael Jackson album

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Tuesday May 13, 2014 marked the global release of the latest Epic Records product; a collection of eight previously unpublished songs recorded by the King of Pop and remixed by modern-day producers. A deluxe edition of the album, Xscape, includes all eight remixed tracks in their ‘original’, unaltered form, plus a bonus track featuring Justin Timberlake.

As I embark on writing a track-by-track review of the album itself, I feel the it necessary to preface my thoughts with the following:

As I’ve previously stated, I would personally not be releasing items from Michael Jackson’s vault of unheard music. The man gave us, the public, more than enough material during his life. I see absolutely no need for, or benefit in, scraping the barrel for works he personally overlooked for public consumption.

Throughout his solo adult career spanning 30 years (1979-2009) Jackson officially released six full-length studio albums. That’s an average of one album every five years. This is not because he was lazy or uninspired. Nor is it because he was idle. The reason Michael Jackson took so long to compile and release studio albums is because he was a perfectionist, stewing over every minor detail. He wanted to create masterpieces; songs and albums that would stand the test of time and live on forever as his legacy.

Once pressed and distributed for sale around the world Jackson would often continue to tweak his work. This is evident from the countless pressings of the Bad album – originally released in 1987 – that have been issued over the years; each with its own unique amendments. Even when it was “done” it wasn’t done!

Jackson’s attention to the most subtle sonic intricacies was second-to-none, and that’s what made him perhaps the greatest recording artist in music history. His desire to perfect those intricacies may seem obsessive-compulsive to some, but when you play a song like “Don’t Stop Till Ya Get Enough” today, 35 years after it was originally recorded, there is no debating Jackson’s time and effort was well spent.

For Xscape, Jackson was not able to captain the ship. In fact, it’s debatable whether or not the ship would have ever left the port – at least with this particular cargo on board – had Jackson not passed away on June 25, 2009.

The songs on the album – ones Jackson consciously opted against releasing during his lifetime – originate from recording sessions between 1980 and 1999. L.A. Reid, chairman of Epic Records, assembled a team of what he considers to be the best producers in the business today to remix the recordings – a concept that Jackson himself made crystal clear he did not like – for the album. Epic Records and the marketing team involved are refusing to acknowledge them as remixes, but for me that’s what they are.

Reid’s first call was to Timbaland, who not only did not work with Jackson during his life, but never even met him. Norwegian duo Stargate, whom Jackson admired greatly and wanted to work with, Estate co-executor John McClain, and former Jackson collaborator Rodney Jerkins also got the call to be involved with contributing their efforts to the project. Michael Jackson’s only participation was that his voice would be the star of the show, with Reid’s newly formed production ensemble charged with the task of building brand new soundscapes around some of the most spectacular vocal performances ever laid on tape.

In many cases on Xscape the producers executed their remixes without even consulting Jackson’s rhythmic or melodic blueprint found on the original versions of the tracks. Instead, they endeavoured to start from scratch, using, they say, Jackson’s acapella vocals only. For me this is a catastrophic mistake. Michael Jackson songs were built from the ground up. The bass, the chords, the percussion and other embellishments were put in place before any lead vocals were recorded. Jackson’s lead vocals were sung to match the music he’d worked so hard to perfect, which is why his voice is so rich in rhythm. So for the producers to start with the vocal stems and attempt to work backwards by matching the music to the vocals just makes no sense to me. As a result I feel there are sequencing and timing issues on a number of tracks, where the vocal is doing things the music cannot keep up with. I’ll touch on that in my track-by-track review.

Just to be clear, this, in my opinion, is NOT a new “Michael Jackson album” per se. It is simply a compilation of songs – remixes and originals – on which Michael Jackson’s voice appears. And that’s how I’ll be reviewing it. The music on this album does not have Michael Jackson’s final seal of approval and, in my opinion, cannot be held to the standards of the material he willingly released during his life.

CLICK HERE to order your copy of Xscape Origins!

Love Never Felt So Good     Recorded in 1980, not ’83 as is being promoted, this track is a collaboration between Jackson and songwriter Paul Anka. In its original form we hear a youthful Jackson recording a warm, sweet, joyous demo that was not meant for public release in any way, shape or form. The track is not a studio recording, but rather a songwriting session caught on tape and frozen in time. The original track, in the version we hear, is not finished. And it never was; at least not by Jackson. So when I heard that the track had been selected for the album I felt a bit uneasy. Then when I discovered that it had also been chosen as the album’s lead single, I was dumbfounded. However in hindsight, after hearing the newly-crafted John McClain and Giorgio Tuinfort co-produced Xscape album version, I can definitely understand Epic Records’ decision to use it. The production takes what was a sweet yet unassuming demo, featuring merely a piano and Jackson’s real-time finger snaps, and turns it into an Off The Wall-inspired track reminiscent of the funky-smooth “Rock With You”. I like it. I also really quite like the version that features Justin Timberlake, which was produced by Timbaland, and recalls samples of Jackson’s “Workin’ Day & Night”. Neither the McClain/Tuinfort version nor the Timbaland/Timberlake remix will leave you breathless, but all in all the track is an organic way to kick off the album.

Chicago     This Invincible outtake was written in 1999 by super-producer and former record executive Cory Rooney (Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child, Marc Anthony) and recorded by Jackson the same year at The Hit Factory in New York City. Originally called “She Was Loving Me,” this is one of only two never-before-heard tracks on the Xscape album. The original Rooney-produced version takes me right back to the mystical vibe and sonic tranquility that oozes from the King of Pop’s “Liberian Girl” from 1987’s Bad album. Jackson’s voice in the verses is as smooth as ever, before unleashing a powerful surge of vocal fire in the choruses. The original version suits the era from which it originates. Timbaland, who produced the remix, brings the song into 2014 by completely departing from the original’s feeling. At first I was taken aback by the new Timbaland remix, as I had previously heard an alternate mix co-produced only a few years ago by Cory Rooney with Michael’s nephew Taryll Jackson. The Rooney/Jackson production really allows Jackson’s vocal to soar, while the hard-hitting guitar and drum infused chorus really punches you in the gut. Their version reminds me of “Give In To Me,” “Billie Jean” and “Dirty Diana” rolled into one. Timbaland, on the other hand, has turned “Chicago” into a somewhat radio-friendly pop song with an RnB flavour for the Xscape album. Unfortunately in doing so he has also sucked some of the spirit and Jackson magic out of the track. The music, to my ears, is very generic and sounds like it comes straight from a free downloadable collection of bass sounds and drum beats. Enter the world of Timbaland and the 808 trap drum. To be continued.

Loving You     This beautiful mid-tempo love song was written and recorded smack-bang in the middle of the 80s with musician John Barnes. Epic Records is marketing the track as being recorded during the 1987 Bad sessions, which it was not. It was done, dusted and shelved before the Bad sessions began. Regardless of its origins, the song is delightful. It reminds me of a cross between “Carousel” (a Thriller outtake) and “One More Chance” (from The Jacksons’ Victory album). Jackson’s voice, as usual, is divine.  Timbaland delivers one of my favourite remixes on the album with this one, with an attention grabbing piano intro and some interesting embellishments throughout. For the second time in a row he resorts to the 808. Trap drums invade the chorus and remind us that Michael Jackson had absolutely nothing to do with this remix. I have to admit it took me about half-a-dozen listens to get into the remix, but the track is so strong melodically that it eventually won me over. Now I love it. I can absolutely imagine hearing “Loving You” on the radio and anticipate it will be the released as a single at some point.

A Place With No Name     Co-written by Elliot Straite (aka Dr. Freeze) with Michael Jackson in 1998, the origins of this song date back much further than the King of Pop’s recording. “A Place With No Name” is actually a re-written cover of the 1972 hit “A Horse With No Name” by the group America – originally written by Dewey Bunnell. The original Michael Jackson rendition of the song, as it appears on Xscape, is very true to America’s version and packed with nostalgia. It even borrows the famous guitar riff that plays throughout. The track showcases Jackson’s innate ability captivate the listener by telling intricate, detailed stories through musically-engaging pop songs that are not only catchy, but timeless. Jackson continued to work on this track for a decade, and even after he last tweaked it with producer Neff-U in 2008 it was still not considered “complete”. The remix, carried out by Norwegian production duo Stargate, is a completely different from the version Jackson last worked on. This can be largely put down to the fact that it was constructed by Stargate, according to them, without them listening to Jackson and Freeze’s original composition. It has a European feel, is extremely funky and has a bass line fans are comparing to the one featured in Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone”. I personally think the remix sounds remarkably like Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. The remix builds really nicely, and breaks back down throughout to great effect. The only issue for me was the seemingly out-of-place MJ vocal tics and ad libs in the intro. Jackson would use vocal tics, grunts and breaths to enhance the percussion of a song. However during the intro there is absolutely no percussion and the ad libs sound, at least to me, like they do not belong there. Regardless, I personally love the remix. It’s another of my absolute favourites and makes me wish Stargate would have produced more than just one remix for the album.

Slave To The Rhythm     Chairman of Epic Records, L.A. Reid, and his collaborative partner, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, co-wrote the original version of this track way back in 1990. Jackson cut his ferocious vocal for it during the Dangerous recording sessions; twenty-four times over according to Reid! In its original version the track is a throwback to the late ‘80s Janet Jackson sound. To put it simply, the original version is awesome! But then we have the remix and the news is not so good. Timbaland tackled the reimagining of “Slave” but fell miles short of both the original version, and previously leaked remixes by Tricky Stewart and Max Methods. Timbaland has suffocated Jackson’s powerful vocal with a plethora of pointless electronic “sounds”. To me there is very little (if any) musical quality to this remix, and whatever melodic thread previously existed has been eradicated. “Abomination” is a word that comes to mind when describing this track. It is by far and a way my least favourite remix on Xscape – one which could have easily been among the best remixes if approached differently. Timbaland was way out of his depth on this one and ended up drowning in a sea of “noise”.

Do You Know Where Your Children Are     During the ‘80s Jackson became inspired by those classic late-night television commercials that implored parents to ask themselves the question (that became the song’s title): “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” The original version of this track is simply magnificent and instantly reminds me of “Abortion Papers” from Bad 25. While there is nothing groundbreaking about the sounds Jackson used to create the demo, there is everything groundbreaking about the message. A chilling tale of a 12-year-old girl who falls victim to sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father before running away from home to escape said horror. The girl ultimately finds herself involved in child prostitution on the streets of Hollywood before being arrested by police. The King of Pop truly was the voice for the voiceless, finding a way to articulate this delicate story with both sensitivity and power, while delivering the track as an incredibly catchy pop song. Timbaland delivers his fourth offering from Xscape with a remix of this track that I actually really love. The new production is somewhat “video game-ish,” but in my opinion it works. Packed with pauses, breakdowns and muddy guitar solos, this remix is perhaps the most unique on the album. Most Jackson purists will be outraged that I like this version, but I can’t help it. Rodney Jerkins, who worked with Jackson from 1999 to 2003, believes Jackson would have loved the production so much that he’d have climbed atop the studio equipment and danced in celebration. While I don’t claim to know what Jackson would or would not have done or liked, I can tell you that this remix is coincidentally reminiscent of an unreleased track Jackson was working on in the final years of his life.

Blue Gangsta     The original version of “Blue Gangsta” was written by Dr. Freeze. Contrary to the album credits in the Xscape liner notes, Michael Jackson did not co-write this song. The same thing happened with “Break Of Dawn” from the Invincible album – another Dr. Freeze track that Michael Jackson somehow got an undue co-writer’s credit for. Regardless of its authorship, Jackson delivers yet another powerhouse vocal performance. Personally I’ve never been much of a fan of the original version’s brass and accordion-infused composition, but when you hear Timbaland’s remix of the track you really begin to appreciate the original. The intro on Timbaland’s remix is dark and mysterious, and the first verse is chillingly cool with Jackson singing percapella. But when the first chorus kicks in we witness the not-so-triumphant return of the 808 trap drum, much to the track’s detriment. Judging by his remixes on this album it would appear the Timbaland has one of the music industry’s most limited percussion vocabularies. As soon as the chorus kicks in, I’m lost. Completely disengaged from the track. All I can picture is L.A. Reid’s “stink face” (dancers will know what that is) as he awkwardly grooves along to the track during the filming of the Xscape Deluxe Edition‘s accompanying making-of documentary. I had very high hopes for this remix but am left feeling massively let down. They should’ve let Stargate loose on this one.

Xscape      The only track on the album that has been revisited and reimagined by the same producer who worked on the original version. Written and recorded in 1999, and worked on until 2002, Jackson sings of the the pressures that fall upon him in his not-so-regular everyday life. The original version has been online since late-2002 when the track leaked against the singer’s wishes. Because of the leak Jackson cancelled plans to release the song officially and it became yet another “unreleased” MJ track. This song is perhaps the only track of the collection that I’m comfortable seeing released in its original form, because Jackson had planned to let the public hear it. It’s done. Complete. And it’s excellent. The remixed version, however, leaves me with mixed feelings – mainly because I’ve spent the last decade hearing it the way I’ve always known and loved it. I’m having adjustment issues, but it’s nothing against the new mix. In the remix Jerkins seems to lift the track to a more breezy place. Industrial grunt and stick percussion is replaced with booming bass, 808s and punchy horns. It’s cool. It’s completely different. But I can’t help but consciously wonder whether Jackson would like it or not. I can’t seem to completely escape into “Xscape,” but I like it. I feel it’s a sonically sound effort and a palatable way to close the album that leaves me wishing Jerkins had done more than just one song.

Overall the Xscape album delivers pretty much what I expected. Trademark production-value of modern-day “musicians” who rely on computers and machines to recreate the sounds that form their compositions. When you consider that Jackson worked on perfecting some of the original versions of these songs (such as “A Place With No Name”) for up to ten years, and note that executive producer Timbaland, for example, came in and completed a remix a day, it’s no wonder that Jackson’s astonishingly brilliant back-catalog will sound as fresh in 50 years as it is today, while many of these remixes, as much as I do enjoy some of them, will likely sound dated by Christmas.

XO book layout imageDamien Shields is the author of the book Xscape Origins: The Songs & Stories Michael Jackson Left Behind about Michael Jackson’s artistry and creative process. Click here to order your copy today – also available via Amazon, Kindle, iBooks, and Google PlayFollow Damien on Facebook and Twitter to stay up-to-date with Michael Jackson-related news.

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