Album Reviews

Michael Jackson – Xscape

on May 16, 2014, 12:01am
michael jackson xscape C
Release Date
May 13, 2014
Label
Epic Records
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd

There’s literally no reason for Xscape to exist unless you believe that American society requires a new Michael Jackson album to be released every three years or so until the end of civilization. That’s a different thing than saying Xscape is inessential or bad. In fact, the second posthumous release from the Jackson estate has some honest to God, capital letter M Moments across its 34-minute runtime. It’s just that there aren’t enough of them to justify its existence, nor are the reinterpretations of them — mostly with Timbaland at the helm — sonically intriguing enough to make Xscape something you’re going to remember by next month or maybe even tomorrow.

It’s possible that Timbaland was not the best man to helm this project, even despite the fact that Epic Records chairman L.A. Reid came to Timbo directly to do precisely that. That’s because Timbaland’s unique signature is all over Xscape, to the album’s detriment. That the deluxe version of the album includes all of the original demos from which the Jackson estate pulled MJ’s vocals does Xscape no favors. Instead, it only highlights the places in which Timbaland’s attempts to wrangle Jackson’s vocals into the 21st century fall with a resounding thud.

“Loving You” and “Blue Gangsta” in particular sound like Timbaland trying to force Xscape into some post-20/20 Experience genealogy, as if Justin Timberlake influenced Michael Jackson and not the other way around. The World’s Fair retro-futurism of that record was played out by JT’s Part 2, and it makes even less sense in Xscape‘s context, where every one of the album’s slight eight tracks plays by different rules, none of which fall in line with the martini-pop aesthetic.

But one commonality across the record is how disassociated Jackson’s vocals sound from the arrangements around him. Some of that is to be expected, of course, what with the vocal tracks having been ripped from demos dating back to 1982. But even making allowances for that fact, listening to Xscape invariably feels like listening to someone pasting Jackson’s vocals over 2014 productions, resulting in an Uncanny Valley feeling at best and unavoidable cringing at worst.

Which is a shame, because Jackson’s vocal tracks are as vibrant and powerful as ever. His whole range is covered across Xscape, from the effervescent, impossibly smooth croon he displayed on his ballads to the “Dirty Diana” snarl he’d deploy to great effect on his “woman done me wrong” tunes. On the original versions tacked on to Xscape, while Jackson’s musical accompaniment sounds undeniably dated, those transcendent vocal performances at least match the pacing and tone. But on Xscape’s most updated moments, like the spaceship synths and signifying-nothing, sound-and-fury buzz guitar outro of “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” (hold the jokes, plz) or the blorping flatulence synths of “Chicago” and “A Place with No Name”, the impact of those same vocal moments is dulled to child-safe levels.

Listening to those originals, it’s apparent that the album as a whole would have been better served following the demo formulas more closely. Not to say that the originals are great; they’re often half-formed, half-cocked, half-baked. But the blueprints of those tracks at least fit Jackson’s performances, which are really the only reason to listen to Xscape at all. Instead, we get situations like “A Place with No Name”, which in its original form was a “Horse with No Name” send-up and when updated carries almost no musical signifiers to the America track that birthed it. Or “Chicago”, which trafficked in a patient, smooth groove in its original form but sounds hurried and harried in its album form.

What makes the tone-deaf interpretations of Jackson’s source materially all the more confounding is the fact that the album opens with an almost pitch-perfect template of what Jackson in 2014 would and should be. “Love Never Felt So Good” is an almost impossibly great 21st century disco revival jam that changes almost nothing from the Jackson original, opting only to add some killer Studio 54 strings and a neon-lit roller rink percussive backbone. There’s a version tacked onto the deluxe addition that features Justin Timberlake doubling the song’s vocal melody, and it’s everything you hoped a Timberlake/Jackson collaboration would have ever sounded like. It’s probably not a coincidence that “Love Never Felt So Good” is one of only two tracks that doesn’t feature a writing or production credit from Timbaland.

It’s not inaccurate to say that throughout Jackson’s career, he served more to effortlessly define and perfect the pop music of his era than to push new, aggressive trends. So, maybe Xscape as it exists is exactly the type of record Jackson would have made in 2014. But that historical accuracy doesn’t make Xscape a worthwhile record any more than HIStory was in the ’90s. Instead, it probably would have behooved all parties involved to try more to stick to the formulas proposed across the Xscape originals. While those demo versions were almost entirely incomplete, Jackson at least understood and interacted with those arrangements. Instead, we’re left with a record that is, aside from its opener, best described by the withering adjective “inoffensive.”

Essential Tracks: “Love Never Felt So Good”

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Ilyasah Muhammad
May 26, 2014 at 7:08 pm

WOW! As a MJ fan, I thought I was the only one who felt the album was worse than the original songs. I think they should have left the songs alone. It felt like they changed the style and everything; that album just doesn’t feel like MJ

CL
May 20, 2014 at 8:32 pm

Chris Bosman – you’ve written the very best review I’ve yet seen of this album. Your analysis of the new productions vs the original demos is simply spot on and could hardly be better stated. As a collection of semi-finished outtakes, Xscape is a wonderful treat for fans. As a “contemporary” 2014 release, it just doesn’t work – and that’s, of course, absolutely no fault of the late Michael Jackson’s. While many reviews are simply choosing to not comment on the original demos, I applaud you for putting them front and center and recognizing their superiority. Unfinished as they may be, these are the closest we can get the the artist’s own conception – and ultimately that is all that matters.

JD
May 17, 2014 at 9:49 pm

The Demo versions of the songs are quite good, and some of them are album worthy while some seem like B-Sides. The “modernization” is okay, but I think takes away something. Michael Jackson albums always had good variety on them from rock with guitar solos to R&B to pop to funk. The “updates” try to make every song sound too similar to one another. Still, they aren’t bad, just much prefer the demo versions mostly.

Leigh trimalley
May 17, 2014 at 10:58 am

This writer is a idiot and should stick to stuff he knows, these producers are at the top of their game and they did Michaels vocals justice, I like both originals and redone versions because they give different aspects to the music.

Anonymous
May 18, 2014 at 9:35 am

I agree with you!!!

bizzmoneyb
May 17, 2014 at 7:42 am

i completely disagree. i think the new production team really made Michaels vocals pop more and come to life. i think this is very close to what Michael would have done if he did release a new album. alot of people act like Michael wrote, produced, and engineered the entire album on his own. not true at all. Michael always relied on his production teams. plus its LA Reid who produced the record, who had a good relationship with Michael. its not like this is some Hollywood hack that never even met Michael Jackson. and remember, some of the producers that he made those original tracks with back in the day were the ones working on this album, like Rodney Jenkins. so they KNEW Michael, they knew what he liked and didnt like. Rodney Jerkins, who was the ORIGINAL AND NEW PRODUCER OF the song Xscape, said n the documentary on the making of the album that Michael wouldve gone NUTS over the new opening for Do You Know Where Your Children Are. they no more than we do alot more. so stop hating on it. listen to it a few times. i personally think this is classic new age Michael Jackson.

Simon
May 17, 2014 at 6:58 am

THIS IS THE BIGGEST LOAD OF SH*T I HAVE EVER READ. No matter what or who produced his songs after his death you will trash it. It’s as simple as that.

I do have to say, if Michael Jackson were alive I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be releasing songs that he recorded in the 80’s. That aside, we now have an opportunity to hear music we may not have ever been able to hear in our lives. Despite how old these songs are, these songs have made me realized even more now how talented he was. Some of these tracks showcase a side of Michael I’ve rarely paid attention to before, until this album.

He sings with such precision and harmony, you don’t actually need music to enjoy it. His singing alone makes you move in your seat. I don’t know of another artist who can do this. Get some updated beats and instruments to the tracks and you end up with songs that even today’s artists cannot compare.

I have a hole new respect for Michael because of this album and these tracks sound pretty amazing when played on good quality speakers. A lot of different sounds happening, which is typical of an MJ song.

FAVOURITE TRACKS: (Updated and original versions)
Slave to the rhythm
A Place with no name
Loving you

WORST TRACKS
Love never felt so good – A lot of these reviews focus on this being the best track because Timbaland had nothing to do with it. Surprise, surprise.

Chris Bosman, I have never in my life made comments on reviews, but I was at home today listening to this album and thinking how talented MJ was and so thankful these producers brought these songs to life. My daughter and I were dancing and singing to these tracks like it was our last day on earth. No other songs have had this impact on us before. Not even when he was alive.

You simply made this review as a hater of timbaland and the modern day r’n’b producers. Michael Jacksons goal has always been to make people move. This album does exactly that.

I will never in my life read another review of yours.

Anonymous
May 18, 2014 at 9:38 am

Exelente !!!! I’m with you!!!

Anonymous
May 24, 2014 at 4:03 am

I Love this album, all of it, including the originals! It is apparent that the reviewer likes it too, otherwise would not have spent so much time trying to diminish it. Simply enjoy the music of the greatest artist we got to experience in our lifetime.

bart
June 16, 2014 at 9:06 am

smh at this reasoning

MJheehee
May 17, 2014 at 2:11 am

The important thing to take into account with Xscape is that it is just an insight into some of Michael’s work and thoughts. It can’t be compared to anything he did while alive and nor should it be. There were over 50 recordings made for Thriller before the final cut was chosen. He worked hard to make music and then refined his chosen tracks to microscopic perfection.

If we take the Xscape tracks and just appreciate them as a behind the scenes type look at Michael’s music making ability, they are very enjoyable. Comparing them to his personally finished albums is missing the point.

Having said that, comparing some of the reworked Xscape tracks to some of today’s charting music, they hold up quite well. On top of Love Never Felt So Good, I think that Chicago, Slave and Xscape could all hold their own in the charts.

For the really committed MJ fans there is a lot to be appreciated in hearing the demo vocals. My personal favourite is the way he growls ‘change’ in the second verse of Xscape

Simon
May 17, 2014 at 7:02 am

Well said. Completely agree.

Simon
May 17, 2014 at 8:51 am

Michael Jackson release a lot of crap in the 90’s. He was at his height in the 80’s. This is the closest we will get to the original MJ populatiry. When he made his albums in the 90’s and 00’s they were mostly huge failures and the music was sub-par. He was troubled and desperate financially.

This album is not as good as his released 80’s work, but much much better than his 90’s and final days.

Anders Krogh Jensen
May 24, 2014 at 4:36 pm

What a crap!! Dangerous is a great album but his image became more childish and naive over time overshadowing his music.

chris
August 7, 2014 at 6:41 am

Why regurgitate media myths? The albums Dangerous and HIStory were incredible albums. Dangerous actually sold about the same as BAD worldwide, so contrary ot many media reports was not a failure commercially. Blood On The Dancefloor was (and maybe still is) the biggest selling remix album of all time. My favourite Jackson album is HIStory. BTW this album gave Jackson his biggest singles success in the USA, and in many parts of Europe.

Dangerous Lee
May 16, 2014 at 9:06 pm

Blue Gangsta and Loving you are the best tracks! Love them!

michael77
May 16, 2014 at 3:57 pm

this album is horrible. they shouldn’t have done it and should have left michael alone. he didn’t want this tracks to be released thats why they were UNRELEASED.this is very disrespectful towards the artist,,,,,, then u getting clowns like timbaland make it sound like all this new garbage thats out today. very weak…..timberlake…cmon son u suck learn how to dance make your own sh up stop ridin off michaels sh, biting his moves etc……..all these people doin that for $$$ …and thats very sad ….let him rest in peace….

this album sounds like garbage…shouldnt have done it…..bet ya michael is pissed right now……

Simon
May 17, 2014 at 7:02 am

You’re an idiot. Have you even listend to the album yet?

urbanstylesnyc
May 16, 2014 at 2:09 pm

The writer of this review has an obvious ax to grind with Michael Jackson I just bought the Xscape album and am loving it especially track #4 ” A Place With No Name” . I felt like I was listening to the early 80’2 Michael Jackson unencumbered by the scandals (baseless from my point of view) which plagued him throughout the 90’s and beyond.

stephenson
May 16, 2014 at 12:44 pm

This review makes a lot of sense until the last paragraph where it trashes HIStory. That was not needed to make the point re Xscape and it just throws that comment out there without support/argument. I totally disagree with that throw-away line about HIStory. Also disagree with a few other things but on the whole as far as a review of Xscape goes, it’s good and acccurate IMO. To me, the people who should have been hired to work on this are people who have extensive studio experience with MJ, such as Bill Bottrell, Brad Buxer, Matt Forger, Bruce Swedien. These are the guys that should have had access to the originals. Also, I do not like the JT LNFSG–it buries MJ’s vocals and it’s way more than ‘featuring’ JT–it is more like JT is everywhere and in only a few spots can MJ’s vocals have free reign.

shaysgreen
May 16, 2014 at 3:55 pm

totally agree with this entire comment

GMRR7
July 2, 2014 at 9:26 pm

I agree as well. HIStory was definitely not a pandering towards the public in terms of style like Xscape obviously is so I don’t understand the comparison to Xscape. Instead of being negative about HIStory, a comparison between Xscape and some of MJ’s best Pop music (Bad’s music) would have made more sense in the context of criticism about how the producers have failed to update MJ in a cohesive manner. Also the people who worked with MJ on these songs would be the best bet for seeing MJ’s vision and it’d be best to work with them before their creative vision is gone forever as well.

chris
August 7, 2014 at 6:42 am

HIStory was Jackson’s best album!

Glenn
May 16, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Good album, classic Michael. Great catchy tunes, powerful vocal aggresion.. Is it Thriller, no..but mothing is, Love never felt so good was recorded 30 yrs ago and its the best thing on the radio in may of 2014..are u kidding me, cmon artist of today..dont let a man whos been dead 5yrs and recorded a song when beyonce was a year old show up.

Anders Krogh Jensen
May 24, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Agree! His voice is sounds great and very crispy on this new album! Michael Jacksons own version of “A Place with No Name” is a great track!

Kevin Michaels
May 16, 2014 at 11:21 am

I just read the child molestation B.S. below. Sorry, but how can you (Wade Robson and now the latest guy) be on a witness stand for hours (2005) and defend someone as “never doing anything wrong” and that not trigger your memory then???????? And now, through the miracle of therapy you remember????? I can get that they may not have remembered certain events but NONE OF IT back when you were on the stand AS AN ADULT!!! Makes no sense. I am a sexual abuse survivor and feel this is solely a money grab. And I have to ask, what, other than money, is to be gained when the man you are accusing is dead???? Nothing but a cheque! It took me time to get help for what happened but, as an adult, if I ever came face to face with my abuser, I would have lost it, not defended him on the stand. And now that my abuser is dead, what else can I do but find peace within myself and move on – not sue for money. I know what happened to me and thus I know the truth. I do not need a judge or a cheque to validate that for me!

stephenson
May 16, 2014 at 12:46 pm

You make excellent points here, Kevin!

Kevin Michaels
May 16, 2014 at 11:06 am

I am a huge Michael Jackson fan and I have to say that this is the most accurate review I have read to date. The approach that I wish had been taken is what was done with Love Never Felt So Good which Timberland had no part of. Timberland did “Timberland” with the tracks he produced and did not honour what was very heard on the demos as the original intention of the songs. I will go as far as to say he did a horrible job. I far prefer the demo versions to almost all the songs over the new versions. I do not completely agree with the assessment of Place With No Name. It did take me a few listens to “get it” but after I did play it a few times, feel it is a great track and one that I could see Michael using (Stargate and not Timberland was the producer of this track) today. Sad, and the reviewer is right, if produced as per the times of the songs’ demos and with the vision heard on the originals (i.e. Blue Gangsta done as a Broadwayish tune, Xscape only slightly updated from the original – it is good as it and completely ruined with the remixed verison), this could have been a really good tribute to MJ. I can not help but feel let down. Love Never Felt So Good was bang on as it was meant to be. The rest could have been as good (again, I do feel Place With No Name is excellent – original and Stargate version) too if put in the hands of someone more respectful of the vision that is clearly evident in the demos for the songs to have been.

MJ=Greatest Ever
May 16, 2014 at 10:03 am

I see the haters are in full force today. Michael Jackson is the greatest recording artist ever and yall have to deal with that. Mj was an even better human being and the world misses him. Some folks are just jealous of that love. Lol such losers.

bebop210
May 16, 2014 at 10:31 am

child rapists everywhere thank you for your blind stupidity

Anders Krogh Jensen
May 24, 2014 at 4:46 pm

MJ=Greatest Ever: Agree! I never had a father. I grew up listning to MJ and i feel he was like a father to me. I even look like him a little :)

Adam

Dave
May 16, 2014 at 8:54 am

Dead pedophile releases new album. The world is better off without this piece of garbage.

Anonymous
May 16, 2014 at 9:22 pm

World would be better without U

Anonymous
May 16, 2014 at 7:54 am

CHRIS BOSMAN I agree and disagree with you are a journalist with the expectation to destroy an art that is excellent in this case historical. you need to listen and respect the work of others to keep a genre going .

bebop210
May 16, 2014 at 9:50 am

are all MJ fans this illiterate?

bebop210
May 16, 2014 at 6:09 am

“Do you know where your children are?” lol too easy… How’s Michael Jackson like a Red Bull? They both come in little cans..

Johnpaul Ward
May 16, 2014 at 7:00 pm

I love these tracks and I disagree I reckon timberland did a fantastic production on blue gangsta and a slave to the rythm best tracks on the album I don’t care what the critics say we all know that it’s gonna get number one on Sunday regardless. remember this yes I agree that some of the production on half of these tracks are over the top but this is 2014 and I’m sorry but I reckon Jackson would have chose all the producers even timberland to help with this if he was alive….Michael loved fresh funky sounds and this what this album delivers

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