Michael Jackson Is Dead: Long Live Michael Jackson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s a daunting task to keep MJ fans sated for the rest of forever — but Xscape is an attempt to do just that. With help from today’s greats, including Timbaland and, uh, Timberlake.
By Keith Murphy
When fans heard in late March that Epic Records was scavenging through tracks to produce yet another posthumous Michael Jackson album, entitled Xscape, close MJ-watchers greeted the news with a collective side-eye. And for good reason. Following the 2009 death of the King Of Pop, the MJ revivalists released Immortal (2011) — an expansive remix set — and an anniversary collection. There were some bright spots — fans heard official versions of unreleased standouts: Don’t Be Messin’ Round, Free, and Al Capone.
But the latest, Xscape, is a collection truly worthy of Jackson’s bigger-is-better legacy. The man responsible for overseeing MJ’s return to studio glory is a grizzled New York lawyer, John Branca. He, along with partner John McClain, culled together a rag-tag volume of locked-away MJ tracks recorded from 1983 to 2001, and promptly handed them over to Epic CEO L.A. Reid.
These songs sound like they were done in one take. … Michael didn’t hit a bad note. His vocals made my hair stand up.
— Music producer Timbaland
And Reid performed miracles. While the project could have come off like an uninspired cash grab (there was even talk that a fake MJ impersonator filled in some of Jackson’s unfinished vocals), Xscape has avoided that trap. The album sounds cohesive, and surprisingly meticulous. “[John McClain and I] talked to L.A. Reid about an overall unified approach to the album,” Branca told OZY of the recording process. “We both had a long relationship with L.A. and trusted he would be the right person to oversee the project.”
Reid describes the behind-the-scenes work that went into the making of Xscape as an unabashed tribute to the larger-than-life performer. “For John, McClain and myself, it was a little bit more than just, ‘OK, let’s make a Michael record,’” he tells OZY. “It was more of: This is Michael’s house; let’s be respectful to the boss … to the king.”
And respect it does, even in just the lead-up to the release. Xscape tracks have previewed online, even appearing in a 30-second Jeep commercial. What to look out for on the album? The Paul Anka-penned disco-meets-flowery-soul number Love Never Felt So Good is a joyous sucker punch. Fans and critics didn’t expect the first single to have such an unvarnished throwback feel, as if Michael was in a laidback session for 1979’s Off the Wall. It’s an organic, live groove for an artist who spent the latter parts of his career chasing the most grandiose, world-beating sound possible.
“These songs sound like they were done in one take,” says veteran producer Timbaland (yes, that Timbaland), who was given the bulk of Xscape’s eight-track material, including the creeping love affair gone wrong Chicago, the falsetto bliss of Loving You, and the growling Slave to the Rhythm. “They didn’t go back and clean up certain things. I thought that was ingenious. Michael didn’t hit a bad note. His vocals made my hair stand up.”
There’s more. Longtime MJ collaborator Rodney Jerkins resurrects the unreleased track Xscape, and Euro-pop duo Stargate does the honors on A Place With No Name, a swinging number that manages to inject some soul into America’s original soft-rock classic Horse With No Name. The album Xscape works because the producers and songwriters featured, including Dr. Freeze, Cory Rooney and Babyface, are all artists whom Jackson either worked with or was set to collaborate with before his untimely death.
But some hard-core Jackson followers have hated hard on one Xscape feature — Justin Timberlake’s inclusion on an alternate take of Love Never Felt So Good. “Timberfake f**ked up a perfect song,” posted Clarence Clarke on the Roots home site Okayplayer. “He isnt needed on this,” added rdhull of Mr. Sexyback’s placement on the King of Pop’s return. Reid is unfazed.
Reid is unfazed. “Justin more than proved himself,” he says, backing up the multi-platinum blue-eyed soul superstar. “I think his performance with Michael will take a lot of people by surprise.”
You be the judge when Michael Jackson’s Xscape hits the world tomorrow.
Until then, here’s the Gloved One in all his G.O.A.T. entertainer glory with Beat It, circa 1987.
- Keith Murphy, Keith “Murph” Murphy spars with brazen hip-hop moguls, Hollywood rebels, revered thespians, redemption-seeking pugilists and more. His work has appeared in VIBE, The New York Post, Billboard magazine, Essence and The Root. He’s a frequent commentator on CNN, Fox News, VH1 and A&E Biography.Contact Keith Murphy