When it comes to finishing the unfinished music of a dead perfectionist, one couldn’t hope to do much better than executive producer L.A. Reid has done with “Xscape,” the second posthumous album from the late Michael Jackson.
Out this week, the recording unearthed eight previously unreleased songs from the Jackson vault, presenting them in their original and spiffy “contemporized” forms.
That’s the word Reid is using to describe the work that he’s hired a squad of top-flight producers — including
Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins, Stargate and others — to execute, composing new music around a grab bag of vocal tracks Jackson recorded between 1983 and 1999.
The album’s highlight comes right away with “Love Never Felt So Good,” a lush disco tune originally co-written with Paul Anka. “All right, that’s fine,” Jackson utters at the end of the song, signaling his approval to a studio engineer back in ’83 after a strong take. It’s a cool peek behind the curtain that Jackson persistently kept closed, but was it included here to signal his consent from the other side?
According to Billboard, Timbaland claims to have actually heard the spirit of Jackson give him the thumbs-up during the making of “Xscape” — namely, while he was replacing the breeze-bent synth lines of “Loving You” with a more 2014-friendly bump of bass.
But sharing that little story only highlights the stickiness of this entire endeavor. As a singer whose voice changed our collective ideas of what pop music should feel like, Jackson was as precise as he was powerful, capable of responding to the instruments surrounding him with incredible nuance.
Obviously, we’re not hearing that on the reconstructed half of “Xscape.” The producers are responding to him, and often with pleasing results. But that means most of the new tracks on “Xscape” are Timbaland songs featuring Michael Jackson, not the other way around.
And while none of the eight original versions would have a chance at cracking contemporary radio, they’re still a treat.
“A Place With No Name” syncopates the strummy guitar chords of America’s 1972 hit “A Horse With No Name” with spanking snare drums from the new jack swing era, while “Blue Gangsta” is a fascinating mess.
As for the original “Love Never Felt So Good,” it’s spare and spellbinding — just Jackson’s voice, a piano, some snapping fingers and two clapping hands.
Unfortunately, “Xscape” closes out with a third version of the song, featuring a chirpy Justin Timberlake and his huffy, puffy beatboxing. Listen until the end and you might expect to hear Jackson say, “All right, that’s enough.”