Monday, 12 May 2014

#SoundOfTheWeek: XSCAPE - MICHAEL JACKSON


Since the untimely passing of Michael Jackson, music buyers have become firmly rooted in one of two camps. Either you believe that his decades of unreleased material should remain locked up and enshrined in his memory, knowing how particular he was about what the public got to hear, without his stamp of approval (making their release a desecration of his creative integrity). Or, you just want to hear the magic; even if that means the art is compromised by allowing others to finish the vision that MJ had started. You feel he did the basics and others can finish what he started, in fact you fail to see what the big fuss is even about!

Personally, I'm barely a step away from the former. When you have someone so intrinsically linked to everything that they create, you cannot have any old producerno matter how talented, come in, and finish it with Michael's ear – no-one else is that gifted. Will I listen to it? Absolutely, it is the Greatest Entertainer of ALL Time, after all! Would I buy it, however? Not a chance – I will not support Sony's ongoing attempts to loot a deadman's vault, and steal his children's legacy to line their own pockets, it's shameful, and unconscionable.

Now that we've got the ethical issues out the way, let's talk tracks shall we?

Once you take the fact that as excellent a producer is, he will never produce the project to Michael's stellar level of skill out of the equation, you can judge the work on a more even footing. The standard version of the album consists of 8 'reworked' tracks, with the deluxe containing each in their original state, plus one bonus remix featuring Justin Timberlake. More about that mess later...

Lead single 'Love Never Felt So Good' kicks off the compilation set. A feel good, modern day Disco track, the opening strings are very 'typically Michael' in their slow, artful start. Taking you back to the days of 'Off The Wall', it’s an excellent open that sets the tone for the rest of the project in a big way. As the title suggests, the song is a thank you to a cherished partner, in recognition of the love that she makes him feel, and the happiness that comes along with it. The live original - one of the bonus tracks - is as poignant as it is natural, with just Michael, the piano, some handclaps and fingersnaps. The greatest moment however, comes at the end, when you hear Michael’s voice, giving his ok on the studio take. The first time you hear it brings startled surprise, chills, nostalgia, and a touch of wistful sadness, as you remember that the great man behind the talent is no longer with us. 




'Chicago' sounds like something that could have made the 'Invincible' album infinitely better. Michael's lower register dominates the moment in the best of ways in this semi-apology to the husband of his girl, as he recounts how she duped them both through the story of how they met. This is a healthy Michael, doing what he did bestsinging his heart out with compelling emotion

'Loving You' is a stellar, standout track. Although it is distinctly 90s RnB / Soul, the modern day tinge means that it's competing with absolutely nothing on the radio right now. As suggested by the title, this one is a love letter with his typically beautiful harmonies, taking the whole five minutes and thirty-five seconds to an entirely new level.

'A Place With No Name' takes its bones from America's 'A Horse With No Name'. But the original songwriter's involvement notwithstanding, the similarities end there. This is a takeover club track, just begging to rule a dancefloor. Michael's lyrics and delivery catch you up in the dreamworld that he describes in infinite detail. Even the production by Jackson himself, songwriter Dewey Bunnel, and Dr. Freeze, sounds surreal. A mystery woman shows up in the middle of nowhere, and walks him through a mist into an unnamed Utopia where human, and environmental life coexist happily to a level of imaginary perfection, and attempts to use her wiles to keep him there. She almost succeeds, until he pulls out a picture of his family and girlfriend, which succeeds in reminding him that the dreamworld he stands in, does not compare to what he has waiting at home.

'Slave to the Rhythm' begins dramatically with the slow, clinking sound of manacles dragging on the ground, backed by equally intense strings setting a vivid scene for the next chapter. The victim of the story dances to every beat of it. Sounding like something you expect to watch crews battle to. A wife and mother works herself to the bone to keep both her tyrant husband and her merciless boss happy.

'Do You Know Where Your Children Are' seems like a ridiculous addition to me. Not because I believe any of the accusations, nor because the song is bad (far from it); but since this is supposedly a compilation in his honour, it seems completely mercenary and disrespectful to throw in a track that will invite personal controversy. Keep it about the music, I say. On that note…With production that wouldn't have been out of place on Chaka Khan's 'I Feel For You' album from 1984, Jackson plays out a variety of scenarios in which children pay the ultimate price for an adults lack of responsibility and supervision. The message is a viable one, it would just carry more weight coming from someone that half the world didn’t believe the wrong things about.

'Blue Gangsta' doesn’t quite wash with me message-wise. First of all, love Michael as I do, you cannot justifiably claim to be a gangsta and mention crying as early as the intro of the song. It's just against the rules of Gangstafied Living! Am I right, or am I right? Anywhoo, a rather mean and unchaste female who, at one time, had promised to marry him, has been exposed as a liar, and a cheat, and he's understandably upset. About as 'hard' as he gets, is 'watch me light the fuse'. Not much 'gangsta talk' beyond that. Solange Knowles in a hotel liftGangsta. MJ – the most Gansta of all-round performers throughout history. Apart from that? Not so much…

'Xscape' is the Rodney 'Darkchild' Jerkins big finish that sees the late, great one go out with a bang. The injustices of a world that treated him so callously are called to mind, as his haunting words echo being hounded to seek real life escapism

'why is it I can't do whatever want to /
when it's my personal life, and I don't live for you...'

Now that's Gangsta!

The bonus remix of 'Love Never Felt So Good' featuring Justin Timberlake was far more of a sombre addition than I'm sure was intended. We didn't get the usual cocky ex-boyband member with the boyish, and sometimes flirty charm. Instead, a nervous sounding boy fan provided a nervous sounding verse, that should have been a cinch for him at the worst of times. Considering the tall order however, I suppose it's hard to condemn his nerves, but at the same time, don't try so hard not to make a mistake, that you overcompensate by under-delivering to the fullest potential as we all know that you are capable of doing.




And there you have it - all 9 parts of Sony’s latest money-making venture. Is it a good compilation? Yes, very much so. However, you cannot get away from the fact that this was not how the King of Pop would have wanted this music to be heard. These songs belonged to his children, and it was up to them, how the material should have been released – if at all - not some conglomerate wanting to clear the entertainer's hotel bill.

'Xscape' is available now from all major music retailers.

You know what time it is - share you thoughts below, let's talk!

Until the next...
ES ;)