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Review of Michael Jackson’s second posthumous release Xscape

In an secret listening session in Dubai’s Qbara restaurant, Saeed Saeed finds Michael Jackson latest posthumous release pleasantly nostalgic.
XSCAPE – Michael Jackson’s long-awaited, posthumously released album, is out on Epic Records on May 13 through Sony Music Entertainment Middle East. Epic Records / PRNewsFoto
XSCAPE – Michael Jackson’s long-awaited, posthumously released album, is out on Epic Records on May 13 through Sony Music Entertainment Middle East. Epic Records / PRNewsFoto

It may be one of the most anticipated albums of the year, but expectations of Michael Jackson’s second posthumous release, Xscape, is mixed. The last album, 2010s Michael, contained some inspired moments but the project sagged under the amount of weak tracks and controversy surrounding the authenticity of Jackson’s vocals.

Xscape aims to dispel such notions through painstaking research. The American music mogul and former Michael Jackson collaborator L A Reid trawled the music archives of unreleased MJ songs and vocal snippets between 1983 and 1999, whittling down the choices to eight tracks that Jackson fully sang and recorded multiple times (“That’s how I knew he was serious about the song,” Reid says in the accompanying album documentary).

Reid then enlisted super-producers including Timbaland and Sweden’s Stargate to contemporarise the sound. The end result is a lean and entertaining tribute to Jackson that is superior to Michael. Here is the track-by-track breakdown of Xscape.

Love Never Felt so Good, featuring Justin Timberlake

Remember the crooner Paul Anka? Well, the Diana singer was still hot property back in 1983 when he and Jackson hit the booth together to demo the song. Anka may have now being ditched for Timberlake but fortunately the sound remains pleasingly vintage. The opening dance beat echoes Billie Jean with a dash of extra modern percussion before a young Jackson sashays in with wonderfully warm vocals. Perhaps in awe, Timberlake’s kept his performance straight and allowed Jackson to lead the way in this pleasant nostalgia trip.

Chicago

A 1999 track recorded during the sessions for the 2001 album Invisible. An ominous affair as Jackson, in a low croon, uses the verses to detail an illicit affair over producer Timbaland’s nudging keyboards. It is in the terse bridge where Jackson’s let’s her have it, snarling his realisation that “filthy lies was the go she played”. It is then you realise that the bridge was actually the chorus and a sudden underwhelming feeling descends. Chicago is all tension and no release.

Loving You

Jackson wanted Bad, his 1987 classic album, to contain a tougher sound. Perhaps this why the romantic Loving You didn’t make the cut. The twinkling pianos have been augmented with heavy bass and staccato drums and now it is a wonderful breezy contemporary pop-song.

A Place with no Name

This one received the biggest sonic make over. The original (heard on the deluxe edition), thought to be recorded in the late eighties, is nearly identical to seventies rockers America’s A Horse with no Name. Swedish duo Stargate upped the beat and done away with the acoustic guitars to replace it with a funky wormlike synth-riff. The end result is something that is funky and modern.

Slave to the rhythm

Part of the 1991’s Dangerous sessions, proving that Jackson was aiming for a more ambitious dance sound. Slave to the Rhythm sounds like a slicker cousin to one of Dangerous’s big hits Jam. The repetitive chorus maybe the reason for the song being culled from the album.

Do You Know Where Your Children Are

Jackson always had a penchant for including a socially-conscious track or two with each release. The guitar driven Do You Know Where Your Children Are continues that vein as the lyrics follow a young girl leaving an abusive home before experiencing more bad luck in Hollywood. Jackson’s voice is fully committed, ranging from melancholy to rage.

Blue Gangsta

Timbaland earns his money here. The original version sounds anaemic with the staid drum tracks not serving Jackson’s vocal passion. Timbaland’s percussions are intense and compliments Jackson’s vocal paranoia as he oscillates between anger and doubt.

Xscape

Interesting in that producer Rodney Jerkins returns to work on the same track he began with Jackson 15 years ago. The tune is not the most memorable, but it has many of Jackson’s vocal signatures as such as those “yee-hees” and breathy vocals. Xscape ends the way it started in that it elicits a euphoric nostalgia to the pre-twerking days when Jackson was king

The verdict

It may only clock over half an hour but Xscape does enough to remind you of Jackson’s supreme vocal command and versatility. The album’s deluxe version is a keeper for music fans as the second CD contains the original tracks as found by Reid, there is also an additional documentary showcasing the making of the album. Xscape should set to bring the discussion surrounding Michael Jackson away from the courthouse and back to where he would have wanted it to be, the music.

• XSCAPE (Epic Records) is out on Monday, May 13, through Sony Music Entertainment Middle East

sasaeed@thenational.ae

Updated: May 7, 2014 04:00 AM

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