It always feels kinda gross when a record label releases music by an artist after they’ve died. Even when it’s presented in a respectful and classy way, it comes across like a blatant cash-grab, or worse, a violation of the artist’s will by releasing work they had deemed incomplete or inadequate. Michael Jackson was dead for a little over a year when Michael, the first posthumous collection of his discarded material, was released by Epic, and it’s a perfect example of why it’s best to leave some recordings in the vault. That record, culled from unfinished material intended for the follow-up to his 2001 album Invincible, was uniformly underwhelming. The music certainly sounded like Michael Jackson, but the songs were well below the standards of classics like Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad, and even though the recordings were made in the three years before its release, the production felt very dated.
Xscape, the newly released second posthumous Jackson album, sidesteps the problems of Michael in part by being less reverent to Jackson’s artistic intentions. The album, which was masterminded by Epic CEO L.A. Reid, is a set of eight abandoned Jackson tracks originally recorded between 1983 and 2001 that have been reworked by contemporary producers Timbaland, J-Roc, Stargate, and Rodney Jerkins, who co-wrote and produced the original version of the title track. If the idea of modernizing discarded Michael Jackson songs seems like a disrespectful, bad idea in the abstract, the result is actually really great. And if Michael Jackson were alive today, Xscape is pretty much exactly the kind of sparkling, classic yet contemporary pop album you’d want him to release.
The deluxe edition of Xscape features a second disc with all the original unfinished recordings of the songs, and it basically exists to prove that Reid was absolutely correct to overhaul the tracks. The songs are there, but the production feels dated or flat. The new arrangements — particularly those by Timbaland — aren’t just more modern, they’re also better frames for Jackson’s melodies and vocal performances. The original versions of “Chicago” and the unfortunately titled “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” are catchy, but too cluttered to deliver the sort of punch they get when paired with Timbaland’s minimalist funk. Michael and the demo disc of Xscape sound like a brilliant artist who is either going through the motions or indecisive about how to complete his work. Comparably, the Xscape music finished by Timbaland and Stargate shows us that even a world-class genius like Jackson benefits from a good editor.
It’s hard to imagine Jackson arriving at any of this “new” music if he’d actually worked with the same producers in his lifetime. Jackson’s taste in production and arrangement calcified somewhere around the early ’90s. Despite releasing the quasi-disco “You Rock My World” in 2001, he seemed resistant to the idea of revisiting the sound of his most famous and beloved records. This is admirable, if a bit disappointing — Jackson remained committed to the idea of pushing forward his entire life, even if the results, like his final album Invincible, mostly offered increasingly twitchy variations on the New Jack Swing style of Dangerous. But without Jackson around to veto anything, the producers of Xscape jump at the opportunity to bypass the sort of airtight syncopation Jackson became obsessed with as he got older, and give people the light, upbeat Michael Jackson music they wanted the most.
Timbaland and J-Roc, who produced and co-wrote the majority of Justin Timberlake’s blockbuster 20/20 Experience albums, are obviously no strangers to updating the sound of Jackson’s glory days. At least half of the songs on those Timberlake albums sound like Jackson fanfic. (It’s worth noting that Timberlake’s 2003 smash “Rock Your Body” was originally written for Jackson by The Neptunes, and the very fact that Jackson would decline a song that great calls his taste level in his latter years into question.) Timberlake actually shows up on the second disc in a remix of “Love Never Felt So Good,” a song written by Jackson and Paul Anka circa 1983 that Timbaland and J-Roc have remade as a straight-up Off the Wall-style disco tune. This may not have been a direction Jackson would’ve gone in if he were still with us, but it serves his legacy well by reconnecting us with the joyous sound of him at his creative peak, before it all got so complicated.