Michael Jackson, “Xscape” (Epic) 3 ½ stars: From the first, there was the voice, and with it Michael Jackson crafted beauty. The sequins and moonwalk came later.
Even as a tyke he captivated with tonal purity, and in the intervening four decades and 10 studio solo albums that voice was a unifier, one nestled not just within universal playlists but our very neurons — as anyone who’s ever awakened with the bass line to “Billie Jean” or the chorus to “Rock With You” out-of-the-blue rolling through their heads can attest. “You’ve got to feel that heat” indeed.
Nearly five years after his death, that voice remains, and is at its most powerful on the new album “Xscape.” Eight songs that use Jackson demos as blueprints to construct modern, vibrant tracks, the artist’s second posthumous album of studio recordings feels shockingly vital, as though the producers charged with re-imagining this work had harnessed dance-floor defibrillators.
Equally alive are the eight demos of these songs included with the deluxe package, resulting in a strong addition to the King of Pop conversation. At nearly every turn, “Xscape” succeeds in its intended goal of “finding new and compelling ways to capture the essence, the excitement and the magic that is Michael Jackson,” as stated in the liner notes.
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Considering one of those eight is a riff on soft rock band America’s “A Horse With No Name,” that’s no small feat. (The deluxe package’s final track pairs inheritor Justin Timberlake with Jackson for a fake duet of “Love Never Felt So Good.” It’s superfluous.)
From the first lines of the first song, the Paul Anka-penned, “Love Never Felt So Good,” “Xscape” confirms that hearing Michael sing “new” material can still be a mystical experience, and throughout the freshly produced recordings the sound of a still-vital spirit rushes into the present with revived energy.
You can hear his breath in the slow-burning “Chicago,” about an innocent tryst gone wrong, can nearly touch the quiver in his falsetto during “Loving You.” “Blue Gangsta” is pure funk, with a vocal take that’s toe-curlingly gorgeous and a conceit that ups the “Smooth Criminal” vibe. That crack of emotion, heard in headphones, races to the pleasure center, while the track’s producers, including Dr. Freeze, Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, build a sonic RoboCop to support it.
In fact, “Xscape” often passes the skeptic’s test.
Does it swing? Yes. Does it feel like a contractual obligation album? No. Does it honor Jackson’s legacy? Yes. Can you dance to it? God yes. Can you mash to it? Certainly.
The product of “album producer/curator” Antonio “L.A.” Reid and executive producers Timbaland and Jackson’s estate overseers, the release offers sonic holograms of the best possible kind. This is especially true of the Rodney Jerkins-produced title track, which closes the album with robotic glory, and the nearly perfect opener, “Love Never Felt So Good.”
Which, honestly, comes as a relief, because one sure way to destroy great art is through unchecked exploitation.
By the time Elvis Presley was four years gone, for example, his estate had authorized 12 different releases, and by the 10th anniversary Presley’s ghost had been monetized for 24 different authorized albums. The King’s reputation suffered. The Jimi Hendrix estate has so diluted the market with the late guitarist’s outtakes that it’s hard to know where to start and stop.
As such, Jackson’s fans are rightly concerned about taggers painting mustaches on his Mona Lisas. Too, they’re wary of being force-fed music by those charged with maximizing the estate’s profits.
To its credit, Jackson’s estate has so far been miserly, only issuing one other posthumous release of studio recordings, “Michael,” from 2010. Another offering, the “Bad 25” anniversary edition, came out in 2012. The one aesthetic dud, the oft-ridiculous Cirque du Soleil production “Immortal,” nonetheless has been a blockbuster as it’s toured the world.
One measure of this effort’s success? Jackson accomplishes something virtually impossible when, during “A Place with No Name,” he makes soft-rock vocal group America sound funky. A lost-in-the-desert re-imagining of the early ’70s song, his demo is utterly surprising, like Frank Ocean turning an Eagles song into his “American Wedding.” As updated by Swedish dance-pop masters Stargate (Ylvis’ “The Fox,” Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” “Firework” by Katy Perry), the new track thumps with classic hooks and melodies.
Thematically, “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” is less effective at its message than Prince’s “Sign O’ the Times,” and showcases the more tiresome touchy-feely side of late-period MJ, the sweet protector of innocents who moralized on youth troubles and absentee parents with an admirable, if indulgent, righteousness. The original “Slave to the Rhythm” sounds more like a Roger Troutman and Zapp jam than an MJ track, with a gravel and growl that’s fierce and convincing. Updated by executive producer L.A. Reid and others, its sturdiness is impressive.
By the conclusion, the producers have posited a future for hologram Michael, one that shimmers with surreality, capturing the idea of artist as cipher, and temporarily blinding us to the truth that his remains are entombed in Glendale, Calif. At the same time, “Xscape” offers a chance to once again be whisked back to his creative prime and recall the man before his flaws felled him, when he was untouchable.