I believe it’s safe to say that, were Michael Jackson still alive, we’d never have this album. Michael would have meddled and drowned eight good songs in an additional seven really bad songs. Xscape presents an incredibly satisfying idealized Jackson the real Michael, lost in his narcotics-fueled haze, would never have permitted us to hear. Despite the producers’ repeated claims to the contrary, this album succeeds largely on the strength of creative people who love Jackson’s music finally unencumbered by Jackson himself.

The Record We'd Never Hear

I really don’t pay much attention to music charts anymore, mainly because most of what passes for music these days really is quite bad in every conceivable sense. A friend brought to my attention that, in 2013 black acts were almost completely missing from the top levels of Billboard’s Hot 100, replaced instead by white acts making a fortune by sounding black— Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and others. Meanwhile, over on the Gospel charts, we have a different phenomenon: black acts finding commercial success by sounding white. Hezekiah Walker, J. Moss, [More} all now seem eager to follow in the Oreo footsteps of Kurt “Angry Moose” Carr, Israel Haughton and like-minded Gospel music sellouts who’ve abandoned most anything that sounds like soul or, for that matter, Gospel to instead produce mainstream (i.e. white) Contemporary Christian music: banal, repetitious four-chord ditties consisting of barely a handful of lyrics repeated ad nauseam until the audience is hypnotized into a religious frenzy. This frothy, lightweight pap is several French fries short of a Happy Meal and an embarrassment to the art and tradition of Gospel music in that it lacks both substance and anointing. Were I still pastoring, I would not allow this pap to be sung in my church or, alternatively, would insist actual lyrics which actually feed people spiritually be written for it. Thus, we have this new phenomena of white acts sounding black in mainstream pop, while black acts (and everybody else) is sounding white in “Gospel” music.

I am deeply grateful to Michael Jackson or, more accurately, to John Branca and John McClain, administrators of Jackson’s estate, for crafting Xscape, the second posthumous Jackson release, and reminding us of how crossover music is actually done. The problem with the white-sounding black Gospel acts is they sound disingenuous, like they are chasing a fad more so than expressing a true inspiration of God. In that sense, Xscape, which does not pretend to glorify God in any way, sounds much more pure than virtually any black Gospel I’ve heard in years, likely because the nucleus of these highly calculated commercial tracks were private experiments of Jackson’s and thus, much more personally inspired. Xscape puts the lie to all the white acts trying to sound black, providing a roadmap for commercial artists which does not include profanity, misogyny, nudity (thank God), and that deals with issues of sexuality in realistic ways, including moral and emotional consequences often absent in the more prurient and morally bankrupt pop music of our day. Without stooping to any of those negative factors deemed so vital to today’s popular music, and absent any parental warning label, Jackson’s Xscape effortlessly mops the floor with virtually all pop music out there—secular and sacred alike—while shattering the race and gender barrier. Now, mind you, this isn’t a pure work of Jackson’s who, at the end of his life, was lost in a sardonic, drug-induced stupor, but is an idealized Jackson construct fabricated out of seeds of brilliance long ignored by Jackson himself. Whatever it is, I’ll take it. I receive it as perhaps the most genuine expression of Jackson’s art we’ve seen since his Quincy Jones heyday when Jackson trusted people who loved him to steer the ship, a ship Jackson himself repeatedly rammed into icebergs after his ego demanded he alone be in command.

An Idealized Jackson

I believe it’s safe to say that, were Michael Jackson still alive, we’d never have this album. We’d have something much more like Michael, 2010’s stillborn posthumous effort that just depressed Jackson fans rather than uplifted them. However, Michael was much closer to where Jackson was creatively when he died and likely presented a more accurate portrayal of the artist as he was. Xscpae, on the other hand, presents the artist as we best remember him—as the positive, punchy, fun, spirited young singer with the soaring, grand ideas and themes. Michael was more about the cynicism Jackson obsessed over, his tremendous gifts weighed down by his increasing isolation and disconnect from everything and everyone. In that sense, Xscape is an amazing gift; the producers choosing a sublime level of discipline over ego producing an obvious labor of intense love, a love letter to Jackson. Whereas Michael was a misguided effort to finish what Jackson started (complete with obvious patches from a Michael almost-soundalike), Xscape is a far more successful biopic effort to bring objectivity and clarity to Jackson’s art by aligning it with his very best qualities.

Were Jackson living, I believe he would have meddled and tinkered and re-re-re-re-recorded and shelved the songs again, recorded a few dozen more and tinkered with them. He would have drowned eight good songs in an additional seven really bad songs ranging from syrupy pleas to save the rainforest to sound effects-laden clankity paranoid whining about people out to get him. Somewhere around 2016, maybe, we’d have a disc that would sound more like Michael than Xscape because Jackson would never have released an album this good.

The cover art is terrible, the bizarre Michael-as-spaceman-trapped-in-a-speaker with faux-Prince glare (Michael’s been trying to perfect that for decades. He’s not Prince) reinforcing Michael’s “Wacko Jacko” image. The cover art, which is the only pics we get of the singer, should have been used to the same effect as the idealized music tracks: they should have selected art that helped normalize Jackson and evoke our memories of him from earlier and more creatively productive times. Instead, we’re creeped out. Again. Still. I’ll hazard a guess that the art was generated, in some way, by Jackson himself (as was the equally bizarre cover for Michael), but since we’re playing a bit of fantasy football with Jackson’s tracks, I’d have preferred the producers overrode the singer’s penchant for the mysterious (if not bizarre) and given us a family-friendly cover of Michael petting a tiger cub or something. Despite the producers’ repeated claims to the contrary, this album succeeds largely on the strength of creative people who love Jackson’s music finally unencumbered by Jackson himself.

Of course, we have no way of knowing how much material is left in the MJ “vault,” but Xscape has certainly set the high bar for what these posthumous discs are mean to achieve. The goal should not be accolades for the producers or talent, but to bring to light more of Jackson’s brilliant art. I believe it no accident this disc’s release was timed to chart near the anniversary of the singer’s passing. I can only hope the sparse 8-song collection charts well (Love Never Felt So Good deserves, by all rational thought, to hit #1 pop while the eponymous Xscape, the best and most authentically MJ-sounding track among very good tracks, should do serious business on both pop and R&B). Sadly, record buyers today are largely kids to whom Jackson is more an iconic historical figure than a reality, and music these days is so bad that actual good music will likely not do very well because these kids won’t be able to identify with it. Thus, Xscape could well be just a nostalgia item for the fogies like myself, or it could go straight to the top, returning Jackson, finally forgiven for his eccentricities and likely creepiness, to the rightful position of his prime.

I imagine if the CD is a huge hit, we won’t have to wait another four years for the next collection. In the accompanying documentary, Producer L.A. Reid says they had about two dozen songs to work with and distilled them to these nine. That could mean a second disc is already prepared or in the works if Xscape catches fire.

Christopher J. Priest
19 May 2014

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