Michael Jackson’s High Musical Standards Still Resonate on Xscape

It won’t make fans forget his Quincy Jones-produced classics, but Michael Jackson’s Xscape reminds us why he was peerless.

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Xscape

Sony Music

The ghost of Michael Jackson appeared during Sunday night’s broadcast of the Billboard Music Awards, but the holographic stunt pales in comparison to the actual ghost of Jackson that still haunts the vaults at Sony Music.

Or so Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley might say, expressing in the 20-minute making-of video that accompanies the digital release of Xscape (the second posthumous collection of unreleased Jackson tracks) that Jackson “communicated” with him throughout the production process.

The comment speaks profoundly to who Jackson was—an artist who achieved a level of musical success, both commercially and artistically, that is arguably unprecedented. Xscape stands not only as a testament to Jackson’s artistry but also as a model for which his contemporary peers should strive.

Jackson left behind one of the most lucrative musical catalogs, and Sony Music has banked on the value of what’s in his vault. It has offered his estate $250 million for the right to release music through 2017—even using one of his new songs, “Love Never Felt So Good,” in a series of ads for Jeep.

Most artists would be thrilled to have sold the 4 million units that Jackson’s first posthumous release, 2010’s Michael, did. But while longtime fans have the right to be cynical, considering how artistically underwhelming that album was, Xscape by contrast surprisingly channels a Michael Jackson who’s both recognizable and in peak form.

Jackson was known to be obsessive about his recording process and it was that obsession with perfection that Antonio “L.A.” Reid—who serves as the project’s curator and executive producer—utilized in picking tracks for the project. If Jackson had recorded multiple versions of a track, Reid speculated that it was a song that was important to Jackson. One such song was “Slave to the Rhythm,” which Reid initially worked on with then-producing partner Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds more than 20 years ago when Jackson was recording Dangerous.

Reid is neither saint nor sinner here—he is after all a record exec—but at least he had enough of a relationship with Jackson, and more importantly his music, to provide some semblance of care in representing Jackson’s art. And his sensibilities here can not be overstated; all too often, the archives of black music come under the control of folk who, for the most part, had little, if any, connection to the music as it functioned organically in black cultural spaces.

Listening to both the original versions of the songs and the contemporary remakes, which feature production from the Stargate collective, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins and Mosley, is illuminating. While it is understandable why some of the tracks in their original forms might not have fit conceptually on 1991’s Dangerous or 2001’s Invincible (both primarily featuring production from Jerkins and Teddy Riley), in their updated forms the songs are every bit the match of those aforementioned recordings. Jerkins had a particularly interesting role in Xscape in that the title track is the only track that was produced by the same producer.

Standouts also include “Loving You,” a track written by Jackson and given a surprisingly light touch by Mosley and co-producer Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, who contributed production on five of the lean eight tracks. “Loving You” is one of the few songs where the original stands on its own—though Mosley and Harmon transform the original mid-tempo ballad into a ready-made “stepper” classic.

Jackson’s interpolation of America’s 1972 soft-rock classic “Horse With No Name”—now “A Place With No Name”—is an example of one of the original tracks that is far better than the brand-new. Though Stargate does justice to the spirit of Jackson’s version of the song, Jackson’s vocals are clearly front and center in the original. Indeed, Jackson’s unadorned vocals, with that percussive element contained in the best of his performances as a mature artist, are the true stars of Xscape. It sounds, indeed, as if he is still moonwalking the earth.