Back in 2010, the first of the posthumous Michael Jackson albums was released, and it was a total disaster. Put together by a mix of lower-tier hip-hop producers and featuring rap verses from the likes of Akon and 50 Cent, it smacked of trying to make still Jackson relevant, and in the process, sounds like the most aged of all of MJ’s albums.
Four years later, and posthumous album number two is released, and it would appear that some lessons have been learned from last time. The producers involved are some of the biggest heavy-hitters working in music today, and Jacko is now friend and centre, mostly all by himself. But the problem still remains; these are reworkings of songs that MJ decided weren't worthy of release the first time around, and now amount of cutting edge knob twiddling and button pressing is going to match an album like Bad or Dangerous if Michael isn’t around to oversee it himself.
Using vocal tracks recorded from as far back as 1983 right up to 1999, you can hear the original or demo versions of each song on the deluxe version, and it is quite interesting to note the changes that the producers have brought. Kicking off with 'Love Never Felt So Good', we are plunged straight away into the lush piano and guitar licks of old school Michael, but the Justin Timberlake duet to be found on the deluxe edition is ever so slightly better, if only for having a slightly faster pulse. Next up is the first of five Timbaland produced tracks, 'Chicago', and you immediately long for the possibility that Jacko and Timbo had properly teamed up back in the day. Timbaland's icy synths and warped beats work perfectly with Jackson’s lyrics of a cheating girlfriend, letting the heartbreak and anger come through equally.
Timbaland works his magic elsewhere, such as on 'Loving You', with its joyous, almost big-band sound, you could totally see this still being played as the first song at weddings everywhere if it had been released two decades ago. 'Slave To The Rhythm' opens to the sounds of chains rattling, before exploding into a futuristic hip-hop sound that complete engulfs and drowns out Jackson’s vocal input, which is a mistake no other producer has ever managed to do.
MJ was always one for discussing the big issues, and the same still goes here, with 'Do You Know Where Your Children Are', a song of sexually abused children, is completely at odds with the jaunty, upbeat beat its accompanied with. 'Blue Gangsta' probably has the best vocal performance by Michael on the entire album, layering on a chorus of Jackos, flipping back and forth between soft and subtle to the angry and righteous we all know and love, but trying to decipher the song title is beyond us.
Elsewhere, we've got Stargate (the guy who produced most of your favorite Rihanna songs) providing “A Place With No Name”, a vague cover of America’s “A Horse With No Name”, which would’ve been a brilliant, catchy highlight if it weren’t for the fact that due to its changed production, it now sounds like a blatant rip-off of Jacko’s own “Leave Me Alone”. Then there’s Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins, the man who produced most of MJ’s final complete album Invincible back in 2001, who provides the title and closing track “Xscape”. Originally recorded for that album, it contains a killer chorus but oddly wobbly, thinly-voiced verses by Michael, which pretty much covers as a description for the album on the whole; moments of brilliance, surrounded by the feeling that maybe this is something that probably shouldn’t have been done in the first place.
At just eight songs and barely clocking over thirty minutes, fans of Jackson will undoubtedly find something here to love, but back in 2012, his Bad album got a 25 year anniversary remastering for its re-release. 25 years from now, don’t expect Xscape to be given the same celebration.