You’d be forgiven for expecting this album to be a cheap and shameless cash-in, especially following the terrible ‘Michael’ from 2010. But you’d be wrong. ‘Xscape’ is a respectful and intriguing imagining of what Michael Jackson’s sound may have been like in 2014.
Essentially, it’s two albums in one. First are eight brand new MJ tracks reimagined by producer Timbaland (alongside others) and executive producer L.A Reid. They’re followed by the eight tracks in their original form. Let’s start in reverse.
The original tracks appear to be taken from a variety of MJ eras; together they don’t really form a complete album. As curiosities, though, they’re an exciting prospect, if only to place each song within an MJ canon – it’s easy to see how these tracks inspired (or were inspired by) official releases. Love Never Felt So Good is pure ‘Off The Wall’ funk; Chicago is sombre 80’s electro that could easily have seen release on ‘Bad’; Slave To The Rhythm has a stonking retro hand-clap beat and synth bass combo that stands up to released material; Xscape was recorded for 2001's 'Invincible' but sounds more like an offcut from ‘Dangerous’ owing to its striking resemblance to Jam, in the extended outro especially.
It’s also easy to see why these tracks weren’t originally released. Love Never Felt So Good, for instance, is a very rough demo that obviously wasn’t developed. Other tracks were likely discarded during album development: Loving You, Slave To The Rhythm, Xscape. A Place With No Name samples America’s A Horse With No Name, so perhaps encountered licensing difficulties. And it’s not difficult to see why a song called Do You Know Where Your Children Are that references child abuse in one lyric wouldn’t see release. In the case of Blue Gangsta, though, it’s simply not very good.
Together these tracks provide little more than fan service. It’s for this reason that Timbaland has been employed to update each track to create a coherent and current album. Some tracks are more successful than others, but the production is instantly recognisable as Timbaland’s work whilst cherry-picking inspiration from across MJ’s output. Opening track Love Never Felt So Good is transformed from a basic demo to a fairly generic funk groove – the additional duet version with Justin Timberlake is also unnecessary. Loving You also feels bland and loses the intimacy of the original, whilst the squelching bass of Chicago is less atmospheric than its original counterpart.
In many cases, though, Timbaland’s efforts make MJ’s work more palatable for contemporary ears. On A Place With No Name, producers Stargate remove the America sample and slot in a funk bassline somewhat stolen from Leave Me Alone, resulting in a track whose hooky chorus really dazzles. Slave To The Rhythm is pure Timbaland dance with its deep moody bass, clipped beats and oscillating electronics. Do You Know Where Your Children Are has been transformed with a more forceful hip-hop beat and noodling guitars. Xscape has been utterly modernised with sub-bass and live brass. Even Blue Gangsta has seen a vast improvement.
‘Xscape’ is therefore as much a Timbaland album as it is MJ, which is great news for anyone anticipating ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ Part II. As an MJ album the tracks are fairly average, but that alone is far better than a lot of contemporary pop and only highlights his genius. This is essential listening for all MJ fans. And if you’re not a fan of MJ, what the hell have you been doing all your life?
* A Place With No Name
* Slave To The Rhythm
Listen: ‘Xscape’ is available now.