The cover of Michael Jackson’s “new” album Xscape is revealing. I don’t mean that it’s literally revealing—quite the opposite, actually. In the picture, the lower half of Jackson’s face is shrouded by some sort of intergalactic collar—a futuristic mesh fraise that rises up from his clavicle and eventually culminates in a silvery Saturnic ring encircling his entire noggin.
Conveniently enough, the collar happens to hide all the bad bits. No more pinched lips. No more cleft chin. No more blocky jawline. No more angular cheekbones. And certainly no nose—the collar’s metallic rim is tilted just so, blocking that terrible, cartilaginous void from view. In the end, all we’re left with are Jackson’s big, sad eyes—the one part of him that always remained recognizably Michael.
But that’s the revealing thing about the Xscape cover: what it obscures. I can’t help but see it as a metaphor for the album as a whole.
Xscape is the second Jackson disc assembled by Sony since the artist’s death in 2009; the first was 2010’s Michael. But unlike MJ’s previous posthumous release—10 songs that Jackson wrote, recorded, and reworked from 2007 to 2009 but never got around to releasing—Xscape doesn’t have anything fresh to offer. It’s not a glimpse of what Jackson was working on post-Invincible (2001), his last studio LP. Nor is it a collection of archival ephemera and outtakes, like the Beatles’s Anthology. Instead, it’s something else entirely: a meager batch of pre-1999 scraps and stray demos selected by Epic Records boss L.A Reid to be “contemporized”—read: inflated, balloon-like, into something that will sell—by Timbaland, Stargate, Rodney Jerkins, John McClain, J-Roc, and various other producers.
In other words, Xscape is a product—and that’s exactly what it sounds like. I don’t have any problem with posthumous LPs. When an artist dies, he dies. He’s not around to have intentions anymore, or to suffer when his most embarrassing effluences are made public, so what he may or may not have wanted when he was alive—again, which he’s not—is no longer particularly relevant. Unless an artist explicitly prohibits something from ever seeing the light of day, I say it’s fair game. Any material that enriches or enlivens our understanding of a dear departed genius like, say, Michael Jackson, is well worth whatever discomfort its exposure is not causing his corpse.
“It's like taking a dead writer's unfinished novel and hiring another writer to transform it into a bestseller.”
The key, however, is that it’s the artist’s legacy that's being enriched—not just his record label. Xscape doesn’t come close to clearing that bar. In fact, it actively works to obscure the material Jackson left behind. As a result, it winds up obscuring Jackson himself.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of Xscape’s tracks are actually pretty strong. Despite a tepid demo vocal, “Love Never Felt So Good,” a 1983 collaboration between MJ and Paul “My Way” Anka, coheres after a few spins into exuberant disco-soul earworm. It wouldn’t have fit on Thriller or Bad, but Off the Wall? Totally. “Loving You,” meanwhile, is ingeniously constructed out of one jazzy, swooping key change after another—a maneuver worthy of the great Marvin Gaye. “Slave to the Rhythm”—an ode to the working woman—is Jackson at his socially-conscious best; Timbaland’s skittering beat neatly complements the singer’s staccato syllables about an inner-city Lady Madonna who “dances in the sheets at night / dances to his needs," then “dances at the crack of dawn / and quickly cooks his food.”
Other songs aren’t so successful. “A Place With No Name,” Jackson’s shuffling rewrite of America’s “A Horse with No Name,” is aimless and flat. “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”—an impassioned ballad in part about a young girl who was sexually abused by her stepfather—seems ill-advised. The title track is downright unsettling. “I tried to share my life with someone I could love,” Jackson sings, his voice almost disintegrating with anger and paranoia. “But games and money were all she ever thought of. How could that be my fault when she gambled and lost?” And most of the contemporization sounds like what it is—an ostentatious, slightly ill-fitting suit slipped onto a stiff.
But ultimately the problem with Xscape isn’t the particulars of its production, or even the fact that its mediocre songs outnumber its better-than-mediocre ones. It's Sony’s entire approach to the project. Half of Jackson’s genius was creative: his ear for a hook, his ability to arrange an entire song in his head, his expressive, elastic voice. But the other half was editorial. Jackson was a perfectionist, and as he wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, “a perfectionist has to take his time; he shapes and he moulds and he sculpts that thing until it’s perfect. He can’t let it go before he’s satisfied; he can’t. If it’s not right, you throw it away and do it over. You work that thing ’til it’s right. When it’s as perfect as you can make it, you put it out there.”
There’s a reason it took Jackson 30 years to release his seven mature solo albums, from Off the Wall to Michael. He was working those things 'til they were right. There’s also a reason those seven LPs sold more than 180 million copies combined—a per-album average that will never be equaled. The reason, of course, was Jackson’s perfectionism: his penchant, as collaborator Will.i.am recently recalled, for being “very critical about every single detail”—for standing “in the studio himself, mastering and mixing everything.”
When you do what Sony has done—when you substitute Timbaland’s perfectionism for Jackson’s—you don’t just wind up with less Jackson than Jackson would’ve liked. You wind up with less Jackson than you started with. It’s like taking a dead writer’s unfinished novel and hiring another writer to transform it into a bestseller. Just release the unfinished novel. The stuff an artist refuses to show the world can be as revealing as the stuff he puts out there, but if you start gumming it up with other people’s polish, the artist himself becomes harder to see. Just like Jackson’s face on the cover of Xscape—plastic surgery and all.
So what should Sony have done with Xscape? They should’ve given us Jackson’s original demos, raw and uncontemporized. (Right now, those recordings are only available if you purchase the pricier “deluxe edition" of the album.) But alas—Sony paid the Jackson estate a quarter of a billion dollars for the rights to MJ’s unreleased music. They have to recoup their costs somehow, don’t they? And what about their Xperia smartphones? Those need to be promoted. Plus there are a lot of PlayStation owners out there. Might as well reward them with an exclusive behind-the-scenes video on the making of the album, you know?
At the end of the day, Sony decided that their phones and gaming consoles—not to mention their balance sheet—would be better served by the throbbing Timbaland version of “Loving You” than the gentler homemade production Jackson left behind when he died. Too bad Jackson isn’t better served by it, too.