Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Michael Jackson fan. As you probably are, too. So this review may be a *little* biased. I think I speak for all of us when I say that I miss Michael. It’s more than easy to cue up “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” when you need to party (and do the electric slide), “Rock With You” when you’re in the mood for love, or shout the words to “Man in the Mirror” while feeling inspired to do just about anything.
Michael’s music has been the soundtrack to all of the events of our lives; we know the words by heart and have created so many ways to refer to it in Pop culture. So when we heard from the powers that be at Epic records that yet ANOTHER set of previously recorded songs across Michael’s career were being “contemporized” (another full disclosure: I hate made-up office jargon words like that), the initial reaction from me, probably like many of you, was the following. I call it the 5 stages of MJ Music Repatriation:
1) Is this for real?
3) Really though… why?
4) Who could (and really, who would dare) take the time to “contemporize” music that nobody really asked for (but *might* want to hear if it’s actually good)?
5) Okay… I’ll listen.
I’m currently at the 4th stage, which leads me to this review. At a short 40-ish minutes, this collection of songs recorded between 1983 and 1999, is at the very least, an interesting result of a musical experiment, and at best, a look into the process of how music is made… and remade. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Hear me out. Yes, this is the voice of the Michael we know and love. Yet, the musical scientists — that is, super producers Timbaland, J-Roc, Stargate, Rodney Jerkins, John McClain, and many others — have somehow managed to make us sit up and take notes in answering the question of “what if Michael was making music today?”, whether or not we’ve yet decided that we like what we’ve heard.
Let’s get to the results of this experiment then, shall we?
The title track “Love Never Felt So Good” feels good. This sounds like many songs MJ has done in the past, yet still makes you feel like this is something that Michael (and co-writer Paul Anka) had up his sleeves for us. It’s also apparent to see where current hitmakers and tastemakers, like Pharrell Williams and Bruno Mars, got their mojo from in terms of some of their musical offerings. Pro tips: listen to the version without Justin Timberlake (sorry, JT) to maximize the full nostalgic effect; listen to the original track recorded in 1983, featured on the deluxe version of Xscape. All it is: Michael’s voice, finger snaps and an upbeat piano. Like those happy people high on Hershey’s chocolate simply proclaim in that commercial: it’s harmony.
“Love Never Felt So Good”:
“Slave To The Rhythm” is the obligatory club banger. Which at first feels a little weird, because I can’t believe I just associated “club banger” and Michael Jackson in the same paragraph. Anyway, this track tells the story of a woman who’s trapped in the rhythms of life… which to be honest is pretty heavy for a seemingly harmless dance track. Produced in 1991 by Babyface and L.A. Reid during the creation of “Dangerous” (once I found this out, that made total sense), I’m especially impressed by the improvement on the production by Timbaland and J-Roc. I’m wondering what that conversation between the original and present producers was like in terms of gaining perspective for the song. Alas, the most vital part of the piece was missing, but this track is at least a testament to the power of collaboration.
“Slave To The Rhythm”:
“Blue Gangsta” was easily my favourite track on this album. I read somewhere that this is best seen as a continuation of “Smooth Criminal”, and while I don’t necessarily agree with that, I could see why they wrote that statement. Timbaland and J-Roc strike again, adding more bass and synth drums to the already stunning vocals provided by Michael. A story from beginning to end about a jaded lover, usually standard pop music fare, is made that much more interesting by the care and time the production clearly made here.
If there were a 6th stage of MJ Music Repatriation, I suppose it might be… acceptance. This is not to say that Xscape is only worth a begrudging tolerance, but at the very least, a listen with the perspective that this album is not meant to be among MJ’s greatest hits. And that’s why I think I can at least give props to the super producers who built around MJ’s voice, rather than trying to squeeze water from a rock. If listened to with a different perspective — that of just the music, ignoring its dismal predecessor — Xscape can actually be a pleasant listening experience. Acceptance never felt so good.
P.S. If you can get your hands on the deluxe version of Xscape, do so — and listen to the original tracks that the super producers continued to build on from MJ’s foundation. It’s definitely a treat, to say the least.
Purchase: Michael Jackson – Xscape (iTunes)