Posthumous albums are usually artifacts mostly for loyal fans, but Michael Jackson wasn’t your usual pop star. Xscape, the second batch of unreleased material to be released since the artist’s death in 2009, isn’t interested in mere fan service. It’s aimed squarely at the top of the charts, a carefully curated attempt to redeem the sins of the hastily cobbled-together Michael.
That it comes close to succeeding is a welcome surprise. It’s a credit to executive producer L.A. Reid and lead producer Timbaland that Xscape sounds remotely cohesive, touching on disco, R&B, and contemporary dance music over the course of eight songs whose origins span nearly three decades. Despite all those disparate elements, and a long list of contributing producers (Rodney Jerkins, Stargate, Jerome Harmon, and John McClean among them), Xscape, though only 34 minutes long, flows better than it has any right to.
Of course, these songs have the benefit of Michael Jackson singing on them. You can tell which tracks are built from decades-old demos based on their straightforward, honey-sweet vocals; by contrast, the title track, a product of the Invincible sessions, suffers from that guttural, lashing tone Jackson leaned on as he aged. The album offers a microcosmic look at what made the singer both untouchable in his prime and somewhat gratingly dramatic in the years following Dangerous.
“Slave to the Rhythm,” a song originally recorded in the early ’90s about a housewife who dances her frustrations away, is perhaps the best example of this failing. Jackson attacks it not as the mindless bit of Flashdance fun it could have been, but with fiery, misplaced passion. But its problems pale in comparison to those of “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” The anti-bad-parenting PSA was recorded before the abuse accusations that dominated the last decade of Jackson’s life, but today it only serves as a stark, queasy reminder. “If they’re somewhere out on the street/Just imagine how scared they are,” Jackson sings. And no matter the context, that 11 o’clock news call-out of a chorus is pure cheese.
In the end, Xscape justifies its existence with a handful of potential singles that stand up to Jacko’s peerless oeuvre, all of them about love’s delirious power. The revelation is lead single “Love Never Felt So Good,” an instantly catchy disco-pop confection co-written by Paul Anka in 1983. Producers John McClain and Giorgio Tuinfort take a finger-snaps-and-keyboard-backed demo and add skillful, subtle touches like synth strings and an airy beat with a pleasant, snapping snare. The result is a effortlessly carefree, charming pop song.
“Loving You” is a happy-go-lucky ballad with a confidence in its own simple pleasures that hearkens back to “The Girl Is Mine.” As Jackson sings about how love makes home better than restaurants, Timbaland and Harmon toss in some cheerful horn hits that underline the point. “A Place with No Name” employs a rubbery synthetic low end as a compelling counterpoint to the late pop star’s pleas for a verdant getaway populated by nothing but his lover’s affection. Jackson doesn’t know what to call that place, but it’s some consolation that Xscape does justice to his attempt to define it.