XSCAPE - Review from USA Today
It’s easy, and probably healthy, to approach any new release of Michael Jackson music with some skepticism. Nearly five years after his death, the King of Pop remains both an indelible influence on contemporary artists and a source of the kind of prurient and morose fascination that is always as marketable, if not as memorable, as a great tune.
Luckily, the posthumous Xscape, out May 13, offers some reminders of why Jackson entered our collective consciousness to begin with. The eight tracks here showcase songs, culled from the late superstar’s vault, originally recorded between 1983 and 1999, after Jackson’s early creative peak as a recording artist (with his 1979 solo breakthrough Off the Wall and 1982’s Thriller).
Still, executive producer L.A Reid and lead producer Timbaland — with support at the boards from other noted hitmakers such as Stargate, J-Roc and Rodney Jerkins — ensure that Jackson’s enduring strengths as a singer are represented, layering in modern electronic textures without overwhelming the distinctly slinky, shivery vocals or overall structure of the tunes.
Love Never Felt So Good — written and initially produced by Jackson and Paul Anka, and co-produced here by John McClain, a co-executor of Jackson’s estate, and Giorgio Tuinfort — has an old-school snap and tingle, with warm, leaping strings that recall the melodic and rhythmic punch of Jackson’s work with Quincy Jones.
Loving You, crafted by Jackson during sessions for 1987’s Bad and revisited here by Timbaland, is similarly blithe and nostalgic, with tinkling piano chords and tickling percussion set against the latter artist’s trademark syncopation.
Other tracks are edgier and more aggressive, sonically and in their lyrics. For Jackson, love and anxiety were often inextricably entwined; Do You Know Where Your Children Are (also from the Bad era) documents a parent’s nightmare with a thumping groove, while the chilly, Cory Rooney-penned Chicago finds its narrator vexed by a duplicitous woman.
On Slave to the Rhythm, an intriguing 1989 Reid/Babyface creation brought back by Timbaland and Jerome Harmon, it’s the girl who suffers, as Jackson croons over a frantically chugging, swirling arrangement about a woman who tries to break the chains that bind her at home and work.
Slave is playful at first, opening with Jackson’s trademark yelps and hiccups, but there is clear empathy in his portrait of a trapped person desperate to find “a beat of her own.” It seems especially poignant here that for this star, escape, like Xscape, only came posthumously.