When Michael Jackson died in 2009, he became the biggest selling albums artist in the U.S. of that year. He racked up 8.2 million sales (nearly twice as much as his closest competitor, Taylor Swift), and 35 million worldwide in the 12 months following his death. Given the recent revelation that his estate owes the IRS $702 million in back taxes and penalties, it’s likely that the steady stream of posthumous albums isn’t likely to dry up anytime soon.
Xscape is the latest installment in this series, and it leads with what may be the cream of the King of Pop’s previously unreleased catalog. Originally demoed in 1983 around the same time Jackson recorded “This Is It,” “Love Never Felt So Good” was first recorded by Johnny Mathis on his 1984 album A Special Part of Me, and it’s this Quincy Jones-style arrangement that clearly forms the template for the two modernized renditions on Xscape. The first juxtaposes disco strings against bumping bass for results that suggest both Off The Wall and recent hits by Bruno Mars and Robin Thicke. In the second version, Timbaland accentuates the midrange and tosses in a complimentary cameo from fellow MJ acolyte Justin Timberlake (who is also featured prominently in the sweet, recently released video). Even the raw piano demo, included on the deluxe edition, captures the joy of what it meant to be Michael Jackson at the time that Thriller was conquering the world.
Judging from Jackson’s generally belabored vocals on the deluxe version’s demos, the rest of the raw material collected and refurbished here hails from considerably later. Unlike 2010′s ballad-heavy Michael, Xscape focuses on dance jams. Most have been extensively renovated by Timbaland and associates like Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon. Originally an outtake from 1991′s Dangerous, “Slave to the Rhythm” isn’t a particularly substantial tune, but the new arrangement boasts more effusive Jackson spirit than the skeletal New Jack Swing tracks he issued in the early ’90s.
Otherwise, most of the other demos don’t veer far from the early-’00s Invincible-era sound, even if their revisions do. Written by Jennifer Lopez collaborator Cory Rooney, “Chicago” lyrically revisits the “Billie Jean” theme of the manipulative woman, while Timbaland’s additions accentuate the harshness of Jackson’s vocal. Another classic MJ theme — innocence lost — gets revamped on “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” with squealing synths and “Beat It”-style hard rock guitar soloing.
The most drastic retrofit comes courtesy of Norwegian production duo Stargate, who transform “A Place with No Name” from a straightforward rewrite of America’s folk-rock classic “A Horse with No Name” on the demo to an inventive R&B workout. Unlike the superficial updates heard on Michael, the far more vigorous beats here create the illusion that Jackson is actually interacting with them via his trademark gasps and grunts. That kind of studio magic may be generally creepy, but when the results are this finessed, they actually trump what this control-obsessed escape artist issued during his latter years.