What are you listening to? Michael Jackson’s ‘Xscape’


Full disclosure: I have a prejudice against posthumous albums.

The very worst of them are cash-grabs that exploit an artist’s legacy more than honoring it; and they often sound like what they are — patched together reproductions of a brilliant artists’ lesser material. The very best of them are close-to-authentic facsimiles that don’t detract or add to the established body of work, but they remind audiences of how great the artist was while injecting their gifts into a new, contemporary setting.

Fans of late pop icon Michael Jackson will be happy to know that Xscape, the new posthumous MJ album that was overseen by L.A. Reid and Epic Records, falls squarely into the latter category. There’s nothing here that will shed new light on Michael Jackson as an artist — you already know his genius. But there’s nothing here that sounds forced or embarrassing, either. And coming on the heels of 2010’s scattershot Michael, that’s a small victory in itself.

The album is about as long (or as short, depending on your view) as Jackson’s classic pre-CD albums like Off the Wall and Thriller. The lead single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” kicks things off expectedly. The Justin Timberlake-assisted track is a pleasant slice of early ’80s disco pop that fits will in the modern musical climate — where acts like Daft Punk and Pharrell have basically resurrected early ’80s disco pop for the masses. But it also benefits from a winning MJ melody that echoes the best of his classic songwriting, even if it doesn’t really further it in any way. “Place With No Name” is another standout, borrowing elements from America’s folk-rock classic “Horse With No Name” and featuring MJ’s mysterious lyrics about a woman who spirits you away to some unnamed utopian locale.

“Do You Know Where Your Children Are” has a controversy-baiting title (the song was written in the late  1980s, before Jackson’s controversies involving molestation charges) but the song stands on its own merits — a powerful examination of abuse and neglect. “Slave To the Rhythm” is the most percussive song on the album, and features Jackson addressing the struggles of women in society over a stuttering and pulsating production. Both are excellent songs that remind anyone who may have forgotten that Michael Jackson was capable of social commentary in his music.

Not everything is a win. “Blue Gangsta” is pretty inconsequential, a more interesting production than song. Same goes for “Loving You,” which doesn’t leave much of an impression. But more often than not, Xscape is about as right as you can get a posthumous release. So even the staunchest critics and most skeptical cynics can find something to enjoy about this album. Whether it’s authentic or not is up to you.

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