There are few, if any contemporary artists that match Michael Jackson’s sphere of influence. His impact on music and really, pop culture as a whole, is undeniable. Michael was an absolute force to be reckoned with in his heyday and even now, several years after his passing, Jackson remains as a key figure in the music industry. Being held in such high regard (by most), it’s not surprising to see a new record from Jackson emerge from the vaults. While many posthumous albums have a tendency to be merely a cash grab by scraping the bottom of the barrel, Xscape is no such album. Sure there are some missteps throughout, but seeing as Xscape is comprised of songs that had been recorded throughout the last 20 years, his newest (oldest?) work is a stark reminder how and why Michael Jackson truly is the King of Pop.
It doesn’t take long for Jackson to command attention on Xscape. The album begins with the hypnotic “Love Never Felt So Good” and from the throwback funk of the rhythm section to the massive chorus melody, Jackson hits all the right marks. The song was written and originally recorded in 1983 (with Paul Anka) but stayed locked away in Jackson’s vaults for over 30 years. The original version of “Love Never Felt So Good” (included on the deluxe version of Xscape) showcases Jackson singing the song over a simple piano line and even in its original, bare form the song is a powerful testament to Jackson’s talent as a singer and songwriter. Likewise, “Loving You” is vintage Jackson, with its honey smooth chorus and soaring verses. It’s the kind of song that will make you believe in pop music again, washing the terrible sounds of the last 20 years out of your ears. It’s a supremely refreshing listening experience, especially when paired with the music provided by Timbaland. “Slave to the Rhythm” is another standout on the disc and wouldn’t sound out of place on Michael’s 1991 release Dangerous, it’s just that good.
As good as the majority of Xscape is, there are definitely some moments that make you scratch your head. For example, the opening lines of “A Place With No Name” where Michael describes driving his Jeep down the highway, but he get’s a flat tire so he finds some hot chick and she takes him to a place with no name. OK. I never met Michael Jackson when he was alive. Never talked to the guy, don’t know anything about him other than media reports and my own estimations. However, I can all but guarantee that Jackson never drove himself anywhere, let alone in a Jeep. It’s a pretty absurd story coming from Jackson and really, it’s a shame because the actual quality of the song is pretty great if you can get over how ridiculous it is. Similarly, “Blue Gangster” sees Michael pull out the victim card, switching between threats and a poor me diatribe that’s exhausting before it get’s through the first verse. Combine the ridiculous lyrics with the overpowering music that would be better suited for a Lil Wayne song, and you easily have the strangest (and worst) track of Michael’s posthumous career.
All things said though, even the miscues on Xscape aren’t enough to prevent it from being an engaging and fun listen. Also, the deluxe edition of the album comes packaged with an additional album that showcases the songs in their original form. It’s an intriguing glimpse into the development of a song and the craft of songwriting. The second disc will add value for devoted fans, but the standard edition of the eight “new” tracks holds weight on it’s own merits. Overall, Xscape is a quality addition to the Michael Jackson discography. It won’t provide any life changing moments for listeners but it isn’t the legacy tarnishing tripe that some critics have accused it of being. Instead, what Xscape offers is a batch of mostly entertaining songs from the vaults of one of the all-time greats.