Michael Jackson - Xscape

Michael Jackson
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“A perfectionist has to take his time; he shapes and he molds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t. If it’s not right, you throw it away and do it over. You work that thing ’til it’s right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there.” Michael Jackson speaking of his craft in his autobiography, Moonwalker. 

“A perfectionist has to take his time; he shapes and he molds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t. If it’s not right, you throw it away and do it over. You work that thing ’til it’s right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there.” Michael Jackson speaking of his craft in his autobiography, Moonwalker. 

Let me start off by keeping it 100 with you all: in case you couldn't already tell from previous reviews, I am a self-confessed, from-the-womb, T-shirt-rocking, poster-hanging, vinyl-cassette-CD-purchasing, autobiography-owning, DVD-collecting, concert-witnessing and Forest Lawn Memorial-visiting Michael Jackson fan. When The King Of Pop passed away in 2009, I grieved as if he were a relative and even now, find it difficult to see his videos or hear his voice without dissolving into tears. So imagine the levels of conflict and inner turmoil I experienced after learning that yet another collection of unreleased songs, Xscape, was about to find the light of day. 

You've likely heard all the fors and againsts, basically boiling down to the new opportunities each release provides to his 'Soldiers of Love' (MJ's term for me and others who comprised his devoted fan base) in hearing that sorely-missed croon vs. the decreasing quality of available product and opportunistic estate greed that detractors feel is the motivating factor behind them. Obviously, as a 'SOL,' I teetered between both viewpoints and as a result, all but cringed while playing the music (from the deluxe edition) before writing this piece. 

My conclusion? For a posthumous release, Xscape is actually worth the ends, giving us the chance to contrast the unvarnished versions of eight songs that were completed during multiple Michael Jackson's Thriller, Bad, Dangerous and Invincible recording sessions that, for one reason or another, failed to make the final track lists. Some of those song omissions were probably more about changing tastes or whims, as Michael was (in)famous for, because most of them are enjoyable even in their minimalist demo-type form. 

Producer and Executive producers Antonio "L.A." Reid and Timbaland, respectively, do a commendable job with the material at hand: the original recordings preserve his analog essence and the updated versions, while they may or may not have met Jackson's exacting standards, will not disappoint the majority of his loyal fans. The highlights among them are the songs that work both as demos and modern reconfigurations; the Invincible-era title track, a fervent and ferocious rant against a manipulative ex, the fork-tongued media and the erosion of his privacy (masterminded by Rodney Jerkins): in a delivery that's all but seething, Michael lashes out about being a prisoner to the expectations of others and wanting no part of it: "Why is it I can't do whatever I want to, when it's my personal life and I don't live for you?/ So don't you try to tell me what is right for me, you be concerned about you, I can do what I want to." "Slave To The Rhythm," an intriguing up tempo about a woman in the throes of a controlling relationship, the drudgery of home life and a tyrannical boss, was penned by L.A. and Babyface in the early 90s, but is channeled expertly and with emotion by the enigmatic entertainer.

Others change the flavor entirely, but still come out delectable to the palette: "Loving You," a breezy jazz confection in demo form, is sprinkled with syncopation and stardust in the enjoyable updated version, and "Chicago," a tale of a man who unwittingly cheated with a married woman, could've been a moodier "Human Nature" sequel but becomes funky and forbidden in its modernized transformation. The standout amongst them all is the Dangerous-era groove, "Do You Know Where Your Children Are.": In the unfortunate aftermath of the Michael Jackson witch hunt (AKA 'child molestation trials') the title and subject matter may seem unsettling for those on the fence about their outcomes, but it's actually an anguished, hard-hitting cautionary tale of exploitation and abuse, a crisis that still needs more of a microscope rather than less: "She wrote that she is tired of Step Daddy using her, saying he'll buy her things while sexually abusing her/Just think that she's all alone somewhere out on the street, how will this girl survive? She ain't got nothing to eat!" 

Is there filler to be found? Depends on your tastes, but for this particular Soldier of Love, "Blue Gangsta" is odd and unmemorable, as is "The Place With No Name," which too closely imitates America's classic "A Horse With No Name" to hold up on its own. And the addition of Justin Timberlake's vocals to a version of the lead single, "Love Never Felt So Good," has to be about marketing because most MJ purists simply won't embrace an Imitator and the Innovator being on the same track....especially when little beyond the novelty of the event remains. 

Otherwise, and most importantly, Xscape isn't the rote, listless, by-the-numbers retrieval and update that some have made it out to be: together with the DVD behind-the boards documentary, the lyrics/liner notes and a mini-poster (an image that would've been a far better choice than the present cover, most def), the deluxe version is homage to the excellence for which Michael Jackson was famous, and re-imagines, if only temporarily, what he would have been capable of today if he went in the studio once again. Xscape won't replace or even outshine his already-existing catalog----it never intended to. But the CD does just what the title implies and transports us all back to a time that still could revel in Michael Jackson's presence rather than regret the pioneer's unfathomable demise. Highly Recommended. 

By Melody Charles

 

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