Xscape is the latest release from the Michael Jackson archives (Epic/MJJ). These are songs Jackson recorded as demos throughout his career, but never released. Some were just shells — demos with a guide piano and Jackson’s vocals — while others were complete tracks, fully orchestrated with finished background vocals. For Xscape, the vocals and some instruments and background vocals were retained, with new, contemporary background tracks added, replacing the dated original instrumentations.
Downloaded from HDtracks, the album is listed as 44.1kHz/24-bit, but in reality, the tracks were recorded at 44.1, overdubbed at 96/24, and then mixed and mastered to 96/24. Luckily for us, even the earliest tracks were recorded in the digital domain. L.A. Reid oversaw production of the album with contributions by Timbaland, Stargate, and John McClain. This download includes both the newly updated tracks and the original tracks.
Overall, the album has a greatest hits feel to it. Jackson’s vocals age progressively throughout the album. The songs have a range of over 20 years, starting with “Love Never Felt So Good,” co-written with Paul Anka in 1983. The album has three different versions of this effervescently upbeat song. The original comprises vocals, finger snaps and claps, and Anka’s piano accompaniment, with a track of Jackson vocalizing a hit-hat and cymbal sound mixed softly in the background. The first new version features a beautifully lush string arrangement. It’s corny, but it works with the sweet, young tone of Jackson’s vocals. The version most people may have heard on the airwaves features additional vocals by Justin Timberlake and the removal of those lush strings. Timberlake’s vocals lack the joyful enthusiasm of Jackson’s voice. This mix also borrows breaths and percussion from “Workin’ Day and Night,” from Jackson’s 1979 classic, Off the Wall. The breakdown bridge of this version is preferable to the string break in the first version, although Timberlake’s handing back the vocals to Jackson with a spoken “Michael” is just a bit creepy.
The next track, “Chicago,” is the first one to exhibit a problem that runs throughout many of the songs on the album. While usually maintaining the original track’s pitch, the vocals have been sped up. Perhaps the producers felt the faster tempo added energy or a better beat to the tracks, but it has a very annoying side effect. Jackson’s voice naturally has quite a bit of vibrato to it, and by increasing the speed of his voice, the vibrato frequency is increased as well, to a distracting level — i.e., like Alvin and the Chipmunks, to a much lesser degree. His voice sounds rather unnatural on tracks with this symptom.
“Chicago” is similar thematically to Thriller‘s “Billie Jean,” another woman-done-me-wrong song, this time about meeting a deceptive married woman on a train to The Windy City. The choice of instruments on this track is interesting. It displays a duck-like synth sound that listeners will either love or despise. Put me in the “Despise” column — it adds nothing to the track and detracts from the poignant vocals. The original track features a beautiful acoustic guitar that’s noticeably missing in the new mix.
Now let me spare your ears some pain — never, ever listen to the original version of “Loving You.” Back in the ’80s, a slightly detuned keyboard sound was quite popular. Someone overdosed on that with this song, as it is woefully, painfully out of tune. Luckily, that was corrected on the new mix with an acoustic piano sound with just a hint of a detuned keyboard mixed in faintly. This song also has a fabulous bass-accent track and kick drum. Too bad the song is so saccharine sweet. It’s just not relevant in today’s music scene.
“A Place With No Name” is a updated tribute to the band America’s ’70s classic “Horse With No Name.” Jackson’s original take features a sample of America’s well-known acoustic guitar intro, while the new version loses that for an incredibly catchy bass line that gets even better as more bass tracks are added. This one is a toss-up. The familiar America guitar line is so nicely integrated into the atmospheric original track, but the awesome bass lines in the new version are so interesting and powerful, and, well, who doesn’t love a grooving bass line? The equally familiar chorus doesn’t kick in until close to the end of the track, but it’s welcome wherever it occurs.
“Slave to the Rhythm” is significantly beefed up on the new version. The bass and kick have been enhanced and the added percussion buttresses the frenetic feel of this song about a woman struggling to keep up with the pressures of work, family, and love. Thankfully, the bullwhip sound effect from the original track was left on the studio floor, although the rattle of chains is still present in the final mix.
Perhaps the most commercial-sounding song is “Do You Know Where Your Childen Are?” with musical similarities to Thriller‘s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The song has a rich, complex orchestration, and it’s undeniably catchy. Unfortunately, in light of Jackson’s tabloid-enriched personal struggles, it’s hard to hear him sing about protecting children from sexual exploitation. The original mix, recorded during sessions for the Bad album back in the late-’80s, features a classic gated snare drum. That dated sound has been replaced with a huge reverberant hand clap with a snare intermittently mixed in. The trademark vocalizations make this track undeniably Michael Jackson.
“Blue Gangsta” is a tribute to the orchestrations and harmonies that were abundant when Quincy Jones was producing Jackson’s albums. In this day and age, that sound, even in an attempted update, just falls flat. There is an annoying background noise (headphone leakage?) behind the strings in the intro that should have been fixed in production. “Blue Gangsta” is another track that might have been better left in the archives.
The original version of the title track “Xscape” was the most recent, having been recorded in 1999; its updates aren’t as dramatic. This song has the most current sound and feel. Both the original and new versions were produced by Rodney Jerkins, and he’s the only original producer given an opportunity to revamp his work. The mechanized, robotic sound almost borrows from sister Janet’s “Rhythm Nation.” Sadly, the sped-up vocal issue is most noticeable on this track. Jackson sings in his lower vocal register in the verses and the increase in vibrato is obnoxious. “Xscape” has an angry, intense sound, reflecting Jackson’s internal turmoil later in his life, and his desire to get away from it all.
It’s hard to say exactly what Michael Jackson intended for these tracks. Did he intentionally leave them on the edit room floor, or were they shelved temporarily? It’s not even clear if these were final vocal tracks or just placeholders until the vocal tracks could be completed; it’s a well-known fact that Michael Jackson was a perfectionist. Sadly, we’ll never know. All we know about Xscape is that his music and legacy inspired some of today’s greatest talents to dust off these tracks, update and refresh them, and release them to a new audience, and to make his loyal older fans wonder what if.