Abe Beame is so high, he’ll Never Land like Mike Jackson’s crib
If you squint in a certain light, you can see the potential for Xscape, this month’s latest in what is sure to be a depressing parade of Michael Jackson mash-ups and “collaborations” as his estate continues to cash in on cutting room floor material. The album is Mike’s Lost Tapes, an eight track collection that probably represents, “The best of the rest” of his unreleased catalogue. Sadly, it’s a mess, a mess that has little to do with the effort Jackson brought to the table.
The discordance comes right at the outset, a gorgeous lead single, “Love Never Felt So Good”, sets an impossibly high bar for the rest of the album. While a lot of the information around time and place these recordings occurred are speculative at best, this was a demo, a collaboration between Jackson and, randomly, Paul Anka that were the lead vocals for a song Anka sold to Johnny Mathis (Comparing Mathis’ take to Jackson’s is a little like comparing Lil Kim’s “Queen Bitch” to Biggie’s). Mathis puts his back into a Sex Panthered disco extravaganza, but it cant match Mike’s effortless glide).
It’s one of the few times on the album the production looks to complement the material, to take cues from Mike’s vocals and simply prop them up. It’s Quincy Jones via Maurice White on something that sounds like Michael Jackson channeling Donna Summers channeling Michael Jackson. It’s shimmering Summer shit that wouldn’t sound out of place as an album cut on anything between Off The Wall and Bad (We’re discussing the album version of the song, the less said about the repurposed single with Justin Timberlake slapped on it, the better). It’s also the last straightforward production on the album.
The next track, “Chicago” is more indicative of the tone for Xscape. It’s clearly Invincible era early aughts Mike. The too-many-cooks approach is very much on display here, a sexy cadence that sounds like something Babyface and Brandy agreed on in the 90s, bridges that lead to more bridges. Jackson is the old dude at the club, but the song didn’t have to be the mess we end up with. The real downfall of Xscape is Timbaland’s laziness. A number of his efforts here sound like beats that didn’t make either 20/20 Experience, shoe-horned into the material.
On “Chicago” a farting synth gives way to lush strings, it’s a note by note reproduction of the formula he applied to Timberlake’s double album last year, retro-futurism strung between spacey effects and grandiose orchestration. Timbaland similarly circles himself throughout his half of the tracks, particularly “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Do you Know Where Your Children Are?”, which sound like Janelle Monae at her worst.
“A Place With No Name” comes courtesy of Stargate and is probably the least offensive effort on the album outside of the lead single. It’s great vocal work, with Jackson interpolating America’s “A Horse With No Name”, probably somewhere in the vicinity of his Dangerous sessions. It’s built on a riff reminiscent of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and the only thing getting in the way of a great song is the Euro Pop percussive stomp Stargate lays under his synths.
There’s also a song called “Blue Gangsta”.
Michael Jackson was the greatest vocalist you’ve ever heard, but he also had strong vision, and extremely distinct styles that marked the different eras of his work. Any project that aims to compile these loose vocals scattered through the margins of his catalogue into a cohesive album has to reconcile themselves to that basic fact, It’s a fool’s errand. Trying to mold a sound that will allow late 70s Mike to stand beside early 90s Mike is going to create tension, that in this case amounts to noise.
It’s hard to imagine a better trove of unreleased material is in a vault waiting for us Mike completists. In the world of posthumous releases, the rule seems to be the further you get from the loss, the lesser the returns. The good news is there are some outstanding acapellas here waiting for someone with a deft touch to take them on. A note to future producers who come to this material looking to put their distinct imprint on it: This guy knew what he was doing. Be water, my friend.