“Xscape,” out today, features eight previously unreleased Michael Jackson tunes, completed by top tier producers.
There”s a reason these songs probably didn”t make it onto the albums they were written for at the time and that reason is that some of the songs are downright dreadful lyrically. They are saved by Jackson”s voice, which is treated lovingly here, and some of the best producers in the world – Timbaland, Babyface, L.A. Reid, Rodney Jerkins-dressing them up in current beats and lots of effects. For the most part, the producers push Jackson”s vocals way up in the mix because he sounds that good. Vocalists in training should listen to Jackson”s voice here and study how he uses it going from a whisper to a scream and shifting easily from one register to another. Plus, his vocal trademarks, from the heavy breathing to the little yelps and other hiccups are all here.
Jackson came after women he felt were unfairly trapping him before in song, such as in “Dirty Diana” and “Billie Jean,” but a full half of the songs here rail against women who have supposedly done him wrong. It”s tiresome, quite frankly.
Here”s a track-by-track review:
“Love Never Felt So Good,” featuring Justin Timberlake: Written in 1983 by Jackson, Paul Anka and Kathy Wakefield, the dance-oriented pop track sounds delightfully retro (even for 1983) with its synth disco beat and easy rhythms. With the right remixes, it could be club smash. Jackson is the star of the Frankenstein track, with Timberlake singing the second verse, adding a more contemporary breakdown that brings it into the new millennium and several “Let me see you move” call outs. It”s a slight track, but it grows undeniably more appealing upon repeated listening and is the album's best tune. GRADE: A-
“Chicago”: Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, girl pulls one over on boy since she”s already married. The song has a bit of a “Dirty Diana” feel, albeit tamer. Timbaland and J-Roc take a calm, straight ahead vocal delivery from Jackson as he lays out the story and intersperse that with a repeating refrain from an vitriolic Jackson recalling his anger at being lied to. It”s a reminder of his endless vocal styles, even if the material is weak. GRADE: B-
“Loving You”: Originally written for “Bad,” “Loving You” attempts to place Jackson in a romantic relationship where he just wants to stay at home in bed, “loving you.” Timbaland and J-Roc added a funky beat to the mid-tempo ballad, but keep a sense of starry-eyed, playful innocence on the Jackson-penned track. One of the few tracks here that could have definitely passed muster for an album the first time around. GRADE: B
“A Place With No Name”: Interesting production, including a fun synth line, and Jackson”s strong vocal performance here are the highlights of this song about Jackson being squired away by a mystery woman to a mystery place. America”s Dewey Bunnell gets a songwriting credit since the song is based on “A Horse With No Name,” especially the la-la-las at the end. GRADE: B-
“Slave To The Rhythm”: Very heavy handed opening, especially the sound effect of someone walking in chains (perhaps not the best choice there), gives way to a straight-ahead dance track and a strong Jackson vocal delivery, full of trademark Jackson breathy breaks. However, the lyrics- about an unappreciated woman getting the kids off for school before going to work at a strip club and realizing she”s needed at home – are inane. “She Works Hard The Money” this is not. GRADE: C
“Do You Know Where Your Children Are”: Full of appealing “Wanna Be Starting Something”-type “hee-hee” hiccups at the start, the percolating, mid-tempo, Jackson-penned track just feels creepy given that it mentions tracking children and sexual abuse: “Do you know where your children are because it”s not 12 o”clock, somewhere out on the street, just imagine how scared they were,” he asks, before the song further goes into the tale of a young girl instantly plucked off by a predator as she arrives in Hollywood. Regardless of where you come down on Jackson and his innocent or guilt on the sexual molestation charges, what the hell were they thinking putting this track on here? GRADE: F
“Blue Gangsta”: With gritty vocals and full of hiccups and other Jackson trademarks, “Blue Gangsta” was originally recorded the vocals in 1999 with producer Dr. Freeze. Timbaland adds embellishments such as synths and horns to give the story song its futuristic feel. This one would definitely made a much more interesting music video than song. GRADE: C
“Xscape”: Rodney Jerkins, who worked with Jackson on this song originally (the only producer here to do so) from 1999-2001, adds on a “Bad”-sounding homage to the beginning and an 808 drum machine that playfully plays under some great Jackson vocalizations. In places, Jackson sings in a lower register here before he sings about dreaming of escaping from the world… The uptempo/horn-filled track, which also puts down a woman here, is a little unintentionally poignant given that Jackson made the ultimate escape in 2009. Great breakdown at the end by Timbaland. GRADE: B-