Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The best review of Michael Jackson's Xscape

by Germar Derron

Photo by Getty Images
When I heard that the next posthumous MJ release would be updated by a Timbaland-led team that included Rodney Jerkins, I knew this would be a “moment.”  But my idea of update didn't align with the concept of Xscape. I thought update meant that these unreleased MJ tracks would compete on charts with JT, Usher, Pharrell, Bruno Mars, Beyonce, and Ellie Goulding. No. Apparently, here, updated meant altered – not necessarily modernized.

Initially, I hated 6.5 of the eight tracks. Then, I listened to the deluxe edition and played the source material – the original tracks. The sound is updated and improved. Overwhelmingly, a very active online fan community feels that the producers destroyed some classic hidden gems.  And if these are fans that enjoyed all of the new tracks on HIStory or Blood on the Dance Floor or the non-singles from Invincible, they would feel that way. For 20 years, Michael was the problem and promise of Michael albums.

MJs voice, adlibs, performances, and melodies pushed pop music in directions no one could have predicted or imagined.  But MJs lyrics and subject matter could be repetitive and sappy, especially as he aged, became a father and even more reclusive.  Out of touch seems appropriate.  But sometimes that out of touch sound set a new standard.

That Michael aspect of Xscape made this an impossible task. Producers had to update music that was never standard, created by a man who regularly set the standard. Additionally, a producer’s job is not to mimic today’s hits, but define tomorrow’s hits. Timbaland’s job was to take musical ideas from 1983 through 1999—that didn't make a previous cut—and make these songs relevant in 2015. 
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images
 for Madame Tussauds

As a producer, engineer, writer, and editor that’s my incessant struggle. The public critiques a final version. They don’t get to see the bare cupboards, the non-existent budget, the pitch shifts, tempo changes, tape hiss, and muddy “scratch” vocals. But I feel so accomplished because a no star album became a 2.5 star album, on my watch. 

So, I listened anew, and reviewed Xscape with these thoughts in mind.

Fans and critics agree that “Love Never Felt So Good” is the smash hit of the album – with or without Justin Timberlake and his “dance,” “Michael,” “let me see you move.”   The lyrics are light, but it’s the smoothest pop, funk, soul since 1970s Billy Dee.  This track, more than any other on the album, can flourish in a world where the 1983 funk is steamy again thanks to Bruno Mars, Pharrell, and Daft Punk.

While I appreciate the “Chicago” update, sans Michael this track never sees the light of day. I love the sparseness of the verse.  But while listening, I also feel a producer at the helm grabbing his hair and yelling “man I dunno what to do with this track!” Michael’s melody and saccharine vocals save the song.  But the track could be improved with less Michael. With a voice and style so distinct, the hook screams “just another Michael Jackson song.”  New backing voices, that lack Michael’s grating vocal folds, would bump this up from a C to a B+. 

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Play “Loving You,” the second best track, to hear classic Michael. Michael’s voice on a very Michael melody makes this a B-side hit.  For the production, the notes are right, but the instrumentation is wrong.  And like “Love Never Felt So Good,” this song could have been much less updatey.  The horn stabs remind me of the music of the late (great) Amy Winehouse and should have been less percussive and more horny – hornish – hornful.

“A Place With No Name” sounds like every MJ track circa 1990.  The producers made no attempt to hide this, and run a very familiar “Leave Me Alone” riff throughout the track. Maybe this reminds some of classic Michael. I feel it injects unnecessary nostalgia. This riff was hot in 1988 as the eighth or ninth best song – a bonus track on the Bad CD.  Just leave it alone (I had to).

“Slave to the Rhythm” exists – unfortunately.  What does this track add to one of the most impressive catalogs in the history of music?  Absolutely nothing. 

“Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”  With Michael’s unfortunate history of child related allegations, I do question the wisdom of this inclusion. Michael loved to write songs about the plight of children.  Is this related to his lost “Childhood?” Are these songs an apology or a guilty conscious?  But of all of his super sappy and sometimes silly songs about children, this song goes HARD!  It grew on me.  The goofy non-bass line sounds like every video game of 1984, once they remake those games in 2037.  But it works.  I feel cool and angry, while listening to this song.  I want to make a difference, by dancing, like in the “Beat It” video.  But then Michael sings about a sexually abused girl and I shout “Human Nature” – why?

Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Fairly, but unfavorably, critics compare “Blue Gansta” to “Smooth Criminal” and “Billie Jean.”  And based on those songs, “Bad,” “Beat It,” and more, Michael thought of himself as a tough guy.  But Michael was never “gangsta.” Initially, I “got” this track. Now, I totally “get” this track.  All eclectic serious musicians and music lovers should study—appreciate, and groove to—this track.  This is Michael’s Requiem. When I listen, my heart pounds, I dance, I get angry while feeling sexy, but then I turn gangsta on the chorus.  I imagine creeping through dark alleys, with Michael, in Hollywood set versions of NYC or the Second City.  The scene is blue, like that revenge movie with Mel Gibson about payback (what’s that movie?).  From opening pads and strings, to a straight up rock-slangin’ drum machine, to horn stabs, and the final horns' glissando-like trail this is a musical masterpiece.  Listen to it over and over until you get it too.

The title track, “Xscape,” is also on the album.
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8 comments:

  1. Quality review, literally hit the nail on the head. Agree with of almost all of what you have written here.Blue Gangsta, Love Never felt so good and Loving you were the standout tracks for me.

    I think the new productions don't add much if anything to the originals. The thing is that they lack a certain human quality that the originals have, a whole lot of automation and some slight more wooden less human grooves and overly harsh robotically quantized drums leads to a loss of feeling.

    Genuinely surprised though buy this albums, particularly in the tree tracks mentioned there is some genuine michal magic in there I was not expecting.

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  2. What automatically makes you think that the song "Do You Know where Your Children are" means that he felt guilty or wanted to apologize about something? He made a song about children's RIGHTs. Do you know how many other artists made songs about children sex abuse and it didn't mean they were guilty of anything? Colio and 3 days Grace made similar kind of songs too. But how come no body wants to question THOSE people, but always want to assume every damn thing when it comes to Michael? Michael was a different kind of person and he made this song to wake people up. Maybe if you'd understand who he was, then you'll see why he was misunderstood.

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    1. You sound like a fan in the worst sense. What I said was fair and sensible. People question all celebrities all the time. Michael is the biggest, with the biggest accusations, so he's questioned the most. Listen to my podcast on the topic.

      Additionally, as I intimated - even if he was innocent, anyone would question the wisdom of writing and recording that song after all those accusations and at least one payoff. That was not smart. As a law school graduate, I feel that a wise move would be avoiding the subject of child rape - guilty or not.

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    2. Never mind the song was made in 1985, before the accusations were thought up by the media. Stupid, even 3 months later I am calling you out on the stupidness.

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    3. Nope. Still wrong and awful to call me stupid. First, you assume that the accusations were untrue - I've heard a lot - there's tons of smoke. And just because the stories weren't in the media doesn't mean they didn't exist - first, it was "is he gay?," then it was "what's with all the kids?" - and that started right around that time. There's still a lack of wisdom in keeping that song around in any form and a lack of wisdom in the later release. But you're another weirdo fan who believes he could do no wrong. No reason to be a jerk on my site. Not stupid. "thought up" HA

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    4. Here's the direct quote: "With Michael’s unfortunate history of child related allegations, I do question the wisdom of this inclusion." That quote stands regardless of when the accusations were made public. Did you read it first? I don't make the type of mistakes you hinted at.

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    5. Ok, so I just saw this reply. I wrote out a reply, in case it didn't save, here's the basic gist:

      First, I didn't insult you. I insulted your trust in the media, who write sensation and hyperbole over objective facts. Those accusations came about at the height of his fame and success, and came after people started with the jokes over the Pepsi-fire and all the other such stuff.

      Second, he was unapologetic about it. He made no issues out of children. He was indignant about the accusations, which is more than I can say about Bill Cosby. Innocent people tend to be offended when people say lies about them.

      Finally, I am no weirdo, just because I enjoy his latter day material. His post Thriller albums are ones to rest on; they get better the more you listen. I did not enjoy most of it, until I just grasped it, like you did "Blue Gangsta". It has to happen. The songs are also better to dance to, rather than analyze. His sense of rhythm and melody were unnatural. And the ballads had beautiful harmonies and lots of orchestration. "Stranger in Moscow" and "Whatever Happens" are some of the greatest tracks ever made.

      That's all I have to say about it.

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    6. First, I wasn't insulting you. I was insulting your trust in the media, who more often than not, pursue sensationalism and hyperbole over objective facts. Second, smoke doesn't mean a fire; someone might just be smoking a cigarette. Of course, that's poison to themselves and others. I just noticed that turn of phrase you used.

      And yes, they were "thought up". (HA HA) At no point were those stories ever hinted at before the 80s, when in the order of dropping "Thriller", eight grammys, purchasing the Beatles catalog, and the Pepsi-fire, he became a massive target for people to laugh at and/or try to take advantage of.

      And yes, he wrote songs about children. And he was unapologetic. Which is more than I can say about Bill Cosby (You tell me how keeping silent is working out for him). What little bit he was allowed to say about it, he was highly indignant that people would accuse him of something so vile. He considered child molesters "people who are sick and need help", rather than condemning them to "burn in Hell" (A lot of people are surprisingly condemnatory, aren't they?).

      And yeah, the only way I think Michael Jackson could do no wrong was musically. I do admire his latter day creations. He had an unnatural gift for rhythm and melody, and even most of the "sickly ballads" had beautiful orchestration and lots of layered harmonies that just envelop you in ambiance. Definitely have to grow on you though. But isn't that what great art does? It reveals itself to you gradually. His Quincy Jones assisted trifecta was great of course, but it's all great music first and foremost. Starting with Bad, it became deeper than that.

      This is my third time writing out a reply, but thankfully, my point has become a lot more concise.

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