“SHOCKINGLY VITAL!”-LA Times
I did not get my review posted yesterday as anticipated, but in a way that is a good thing. It has given me even more time to truly absorb this album. Now that I have been playing it nearly non-stop since Tuesday morning, I am going to share a very thorough and honest track-by-track review, as well as my general overall impressions and other, related issues.
But before I do, it is worth looking at some of the other noteworthy reviews that have come out. There are two in particular that I would like to post here in their entirety, as I will be referring to some of their major points (both those I agree and disagree with) in my own review, as well as utilizing some of their ideas as further springboards for my own impressions.
The first is Joe Levy’s very intelligent track-by-track breakdown from Billboard.com:
Michael Jackson’s ‘Xscape’: Track-By-Track Review
By Joe Levy | May 13, 2014 1:29 PM EDT
To answer your first question: Yes, it is any good. And about your second: Better than you think.
To be sure, it’s a strange project: a Michael Jackson record of vocals out of the vault and all-new music from Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, Stargate, Rodney Jerkins and John McClain. L.A. Reid — who oversaw “Xscape” as the chairman and CEO of Epic Records — calls it “contemporizing” Jackson’s archival material, which in this case was recorded between 1983 and 1999, or from the time just after “Thriller” to the time just before “Invincible.” For the most part, the producers chose to work with a cappella vocals, in an effort not to be overly influenced by the original tracks. The result is an album that puts Jackson’s vocal abilities — his smooth ecstasy and pained grit; his swoops, pops, shouts and grunts; those moments when he’s overcome by emotion, or breaking free of all restraint and gravity — front and center.
It’s the central reason why “Xscape” works as well it does, and to be sure, it works very well. Though these tracks build in complexity, they’re never complicated. The focus throughout remains Jackson’s voice, and there’s none of the overworked and undercooked feeling that sank the previous posthumous Jackson album, 2010’s “Michael.” If “Xscape” sounds fresh, that’s because it is. Once he was the world’s biggest pop star, Jackson might spend years working on individual songs, cutting up to 50 tracks for a single album. But Timbaland completed his tracks for “Xscape” at pace of about one a day, once he got past the difficulty of listening to Jackson’s vocals in the studio and not being able to talk back to him. Stargate took longer — about a week — for one of “Xscape’s” standouts, “Place With No Name.”
The songs on “Xscape” are split between joy and desperation. There are two pure love songs, two tracks about trying to find a world where the pain drops away (“A Place With No Name” and the title track), and four songs about being trapped (by bad relationships or sexual abuse). From almost the very start, when he was singing about burning the disco down on “Off The Wall,” Jackson’s music mixed celebration and terror, as if he was unable to find, or maintain, the division between the two. His music offered a place to both explore and escape those tensions. On this album, it does again.
Here is our track-by-track breakdown of the new Michael Jackson album, “Xscape”:
1. “Love Never Felt So Good”
After a sweep of strings that invoke American pop classics — “Georgia on My Mind,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — the drums kick in and the bass pops. This is disco throwback, a sound that Pharrell and Bruno Mars have taken to the top of the charts in the last year. Produced by John McClain (co-executor of the Jackson estate) from a 1983 demo recorded with Paul Anka, “Love Never Felt So Good” is the sort of Jackson song you thought you’d never hear again: soaring, simple and direct.
Timbaland and J-Roc’s first entry is a dark funk tale of an affair with a married woman, with trap snares and washes of keyboard drama. Out front, Jackson’s tenor voice lays out the promise of a love (“This woman had to be an angel from heaven sent just for me”), while his backing vocal screams of the consequences (“She tried to lead a double life, loving me while she was still your wife”). At the 3:20 mark, the drums drop out, and the vocals and fingersnaps take over. Timbaland sometimes felt he was hearing Jackson’s spirit speak to him in the studio. This is one of those moments.
3. “Loving You”
Another straightforward love song, led by piano and hard-hitting drums from Timbaland and J-Roc. Originally recorded during the “Bad” sessions, this was a throwback to simpler times even then.
4. “A Place With No Name”
The centerpiece of “Xscape” is a remake of America’s “Horse With No Name,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, when Jackson was 14 and just releasing his first solo album for Motown. The America song is the best and worst the ’70s had to offer, with an indelible melody and lyrics about a mystical desert journey so meaningless that Randy Newman once described it as “this song about a kid who thinks he taken acid.” Reworking it during the “Invincible” sessions in 1998 with producer Dr. Freeze, Jackson completely changed the lyrics, and the new song tells a story about a guy whose Jeep blows a flat on the highway, where he meets a woman who takes him to a utopia where “no people have pain.” But in classic Jackson fashion, there’s still tension — the woman who takes him there offers sexual fulfillment (“She showed me places I’ve never seen and things I’ve never done”), but he ends the song by pulling out his wallet and looking at pictures of his family, who aren’t with him. Stargate delivers a keyboard-first track with a sound that recalls Stevie Wonder and a melody that invokes “Remember the Time.”
5. “Slave to the Rhythm”
The original was produced by L.A. Reid and Babyface in 1991, during the “Dangerous” sessions, and was revised for “Xscape” by Timbaland and J-Roc. They’ve toughened up the R&B soap opera about a woman who’s trapped by the rhythms of her life — dancing as fast as she can for the men in her life, both at home and at work — adding a spider web of keyboards and drums that capture the maddening pace the lyrics describe.
6. “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”
First recorded during the sessions for “Bad,” then revived for “Dangerous,” this is one of the message songs that Jackson liked so much. It tells the story of girl running away from sexual abuse and landing on the streets of L.A., where she turns tricks. Jackson was a victim of abuse, and accused of it; few will listen to this song without remembering that, and for some, his troubling life will overtake this track completely. Almost as if in anticipation of that, Timbaland and J-Roc use their most hypnotic keyboard riff as the central motif here, and the climbing synths in the bridge will have the listener thinking of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
7. “Blue Gangsta”
The vocal tracks “Xscape’s” producers worked with were in a finished and sometimes perfected state — complete with backing vocals, fingersnaps, and handclaps. And on an album of great vocals, this is one of the standouts, moving from breathy restraint to screaming soul. Timbaland and J-Roc deploy a devilish synth-bass part and trap drums, but pull almost everything back to let a chorus of Jackson’s backing vocals take over at the end.
Rodney Jerkins produced both the original, during the “Invincible” sessions, and the remake of the title track. The deluxe edition of “Xscape” includes the original, and the side-by-side comparison shows how the aggressive, angular rhythms Jackson loved so much after “Thriller” have been softened on “Xscape.” The aggression now comes principally from vocals. Jerkins goes for a deeper bottom, using 808 drums, while Jackson sings about wanting getting away from the system, from bad relationships, from everything that holds him back. And for four minutes here, he does.
Levy hits on what I have discovered is the essential key to this album’s success. Without much exaggeration, I can honestly say this is probably the tightest and most cohesive Michael Jackson album since Off The Wall, insofar as having a unified sound, style, and flow. But more than that, Timbaland, LA Reid, Stargate. McClain, Jerkins and Harmon have done much more than just collect a random sampling of outtakes and demos to “contemporize.” The album could have been that, in the same way that “Michael” felt very much like a hodge podge of whatever the producers thought they could scrape together from the vaults and make sound cool. But as Levy pointed out, this is an album that very much has a central, unified theme. The album’s title track sets the tone. It is an album all about the need to escape. Throughout the course of its eight songs, the men, women, and children of these songs are struggling to overcome and escape the darkness of their lives. They are seeking release from abusive situations; from bad relationships; from sexual and physical abuse. Mostly, they are seeking release from darkness. And, make no mistake, this is a pretty dark album, for all the belying joy of its lead single. But that’s okay, because a little dark and dangerous is how I’ve always preferred my MJ.
I don’t know how much of this was intentional on the producers’ part, or how much of it simply grew out of the organic process of selection. These were all thematic motifs that Michael kept returning to throughout his career, so it might have been easy enough to think that all of these themes just haphazardly fell together and gelled with the eight tracks that were chosen for Xscape. Maybe. But the more I listen to this album, the more convinced I am that nothing in this life truly happens by accident.
Was this album meant, then, to be Michael’s final statement to the world?
That is a question I’ve been grappling with for the past two days. As most of you know, I’ve been waffling back and forth on a lot of issues with this album, between tracks I love, those I was not as thrilled with (at least on first impression), ethical questions regarding mash-up duets, and so on. But I realized as I was listening again yesterday afternoon that the one thing I can’t deny is the passion of Michael’s vocal performances and the phrases that are now echoing in my head like fierce mantras:
“Save me (from this living hell!)…SAVE ME…”
“When I go/This problem world won’t bother me”
“I can no longer smile, baby!”
“She lied to you, lied to me!”
Levy hit on something very critical in his review. This album is all about Michael’s vocal performances. And each and every track IS a true performance. Michael’s impassioned vocal performances are the vehicle that binds all of these narratives and drives them to their glorious or torturous fruition. Critics have often pointed out how effortlessly Michael’s vocals can sail from joyous, exuberant ecstasy to agonized suffering-and how effortlessly he sweeps us along for the ride.
That ability has not been better showcased-at least not in a long, long time-than with this album. And the good news is that this is just as true on the modernized tracks as the original demos. I can say this now with much confidence after having carefully listened to both the contemporized and original tracks for the past two days. The new arrangements are not the star of this album (as sometimes seemed disappointingly the case on “Michael”). This album is a showcase for Michael the VOCAL PERFORMER, and reminds us that no one could emote a story in song quite like him. The updated arrangements enhance his vocals, at times adding a slightly different flavor or texture from the originals, but never in a way that feels overpowering or disrespectful to his original vision. Of course, I know everyone reading this is probably saying by now, “But wait, Raven, weren’t you the one b***ching about how ‘A Place With No Name’ had been butchered?” Yes, that be me, and I will stand guilty as charged. But I also said that I can be guilty of making premature judgments and can sometimes be prone to hasty, knee jerk responses that I may reevaluate on later listenings, and that is what has happened for me with this track. But I will explain more when I get to APWNN in my own track-by-track take.
Moving on, here was another very interesting review from Matthew Perpetua. You may or may not agree with his basic argument of Michael as a great artist who nevertheless sometimes needed a good, editing hand, but I do think he makes some valid points, at least in terms of why Xscape has been so well received critically with modern audiences:
“Xscape” Is The Great Michael Jackson Record He Wouldn’t Have Let Himself Make
Matthew Perpetua — posted on May 13, 2014, at 11:12 a.m.
Posthumous albums are always kinda weird, but Xscape is a strong case that reworking MJ’s discarded tracks is actually a great idea.
It always feels kinda gross when a record label releases music by an artist after they’ve died. Even when it’s presented in a respectful and classy way, it comes across like a blatant cash-grab, or worse, a violation of the artist’s will by releasing work they had deemed incomplete or inadequate. Michael Jackson was dead for a little over a year when Michael, the first posthumous collection of his discarded material, was released by Epic, and it’s a perfect example of why it’s best to leave some recordings in the vault. That record, culled from unfinished material intended for the follow-up to his 2001 album Invincible, was uniformly underwhelming. The music certainly sounded like Michael Jackson, but the songs were well below the standards of classics like Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad, and even though the recordings were made in the three years before its release, the production felt very dated.
Xscape, the newly released second posthumous Jackson album, sidesteps the problems of Michael in part by being less reverent to Jackson’s artistic intentions. The album, which was masterminded by Epic CEO L.A. Reid, is a set of eight abandoned Jackson tracks originally recorded between 1983 and 2001 that have been reworked by contemporary producers Timbaland, J-Roc, Stargate, and Rodney Jerkins, who co-wrote and produced the original version of the title track. If the idea of modernizing discarded Michael Jackson songs seems like a disrespectful, bad idea in the abstract, the result is actually really great. And if Michael Jackson were alive today, Xscape is pretty much exactly the kind of sparkling, classic yet contemporary pop album you’d want him to release.
The deluxe edition of Xscape features a second disc with all the original unfinished recordings of the songs, and it basically exists to prove that Reid was absolutely correct to overhaul the tracks. The songs are there, but the production feels dated or flat. The new arrangements — particularly those by Timbaland — aren’t just more modern, they’re also better frames for Jackson’s melodies and vocal performances. The original versions of “Chicago” and the unfortunately titled “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” are catchy, but too cluttered to deliver the sort of punch they get when paired with Timbaland’s minimalist funk. Michael and the demo disc of Xscape sound like a brilliant artist who is either going through the motions or indecisive about how to complete his work. Comparably, the Xscape music finished by Timbaland and Stargate shows us that even a world-class genius like Jackson benefits from a good editor.
It’s hard to imagine Jackson arriving at any of this “new” music if he’d actually worked with the same producers in his lifetime. Jackson’s taste in production and arrangement calcified somewhere around the early ’90s. Despite releasing the quasi-disco “You Rock My World” in 2001, he seemed resistant to the idea of revisiting the sound of his most famous and beloved records. This is admirable, if a bit disappointing — Jackson remained committed to the idea of pushing forward his entire life, even if the results, like his final album Invincible, mostly offered increasingly twitchy variations on the New Jack Swing style of Dangerous. But without Jackson around to veto anything, the producers of Xscape jump at the opportunity to bypass the sort of airtight syncopation Jackson became obsessed with as he got older, and give people the light, upbeat Michael Jackson music they wanted the most.
Timbaland and J-Roc, who produced and co-wrote the majority of Justin Timberlake’s blockbuster 20/20 Experience albums, are obviously no strangers to updating the sound of Jackson’s glory days. At least half of the songs on those Timberlake albums sound like Jackson fanfic. (It’s worth noting that Timberlake’s 2003 smash “Rock Your Body” was originally written for Jackson by The Neptunes, and the very fact that Jackson would decline a song that great calls his taste level in his latter years into question.) Timberlake actually shows up on the second disc in a remix of “Love Never Felt So Good,” a song written by Jackson and Paul Anka circa 1983 that Timbaland and J-Roc have remade as a straight-up Off the Wall-style disco tune. This may not have been a direction Jackson would’ve gone in if he were still with us, but it serves his legacy well by reconnecting us with the joyous sound of him at his creative peak, before it all got so complicated.
What I definitely DON’T agree with: When Perpetua states that the demos sound like a great artist who is nevertheless unsure of his direction. I’m not sure if our ears are hearing the same tracks, because nothing could be further from the truth. As has already been stated by LA Reid, Michael’s vocal performances for all of these tracks were left virtually intact, which means those raw performances that we hear in the demos are the same as what we hear in the finished tracks. Only the arrangements around those vocals were changed; in some cases, very little; in other cases quite a bit (Stargate, it seems, was the one most guilty of this) but a long familiarity with Michael’s demos has taught me that most of Michael’s compositions came to him fairly intact, and in more cases than not, the finished versions that ultimately made it onto the records were seldom significantly or structurally different from the demo versions. There may be one or two exceptions floating around out there, but if there are, I am not aware of them. We also know that Michael’s well publicized disagreements with Quincy Jones over the introduction to Billie Jean and his fight for the inclusion of Smooth Criminal on Bad shows that Michael was much more than just the product of his producers. He was willing to fight with producers, if he had to, when he knew his instincts were on target. But his artistic decisions were not always infallible. His instincts were on point, usually more often than not, but he was definitely not always his own best editor.
Over time, as his albums became increasingly huger, more epic and more eclectic affairs (or, as some might more unkindly put it-bloated) it often did seem that his albums had begun to lose that cohesive quality that had created so much of the driving energy of albums like Off The Wall, Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous. Granted, Thriller was a bit all over the place, but the songs were just so damned great that no one could argue with it. And so I somewhat “get” what Perpetua is saying. And, ultimately, some of the decisions about what went on Invincible vs. what didn’t were questionable decisions, to say the least. (But those decisions may or may not have all been Michael’s call to make; at any rate, that is not a criticism, just an observation. Songs like “Xscape,” “We’ve Had Enough”, “In The Back” and “Shout” could have certainly been highlights of that album, and why inferior tracks such as Privacy were chosen instead remains for me one of the great, unsolved mysteries of MJ fandom. But we also have to remember that Michael wasn’t exactly planning to die in the foreseeable future, and just as he always had, he had decided to sit on these songs for a bit longer until they were ready, possibly for a future release).
To return to what Levy was saying, Xscape is, in essence, a concept album. It may or may not have intentionally set out to be such, but it is a concept that grew out of all the unifying themes of Michael’s mature work-isolation, betrayal, loneliness, and entrapment. However, the songs work for the very reason that all of Michael’s best songs about these subjects worked. They hit hard and to the bone, without cliche’; without sentimentality. For perhaps the first time since the best songs on Dangerous and HIStory, Michael perfectly skates the balance between “woe is me” and “somebody’s gonna pay.” There are no odes or laments for world peace. There are no “let’s just all join hands and have a good cry” anthems. This is not a Michael who is telling us to “heal the world” for the children; this is a Michael who is showing and telling us, graphically, what is happening to our children on the streets. This is Michael pulling back the curtains and showing us what life is like for women trapped in bad relationships; this is Michael exploring all aspects of human relationships-love, sex, guilt, greed, and betrayal; a Michael who has learned that with every utopia, there is a price that must be paid. This is a Michael showing us, not how the world ought to be, but how it is. To further expand upon what Levy said, it’s an album about victimization and how each victim, in turn, finds or seeks their own escape. It’s often brutal and not always pretty, but to go back to one of Michael’s classics, it’s human nature. And the exploration of human nature, both its light and darkness, is what Xscape and its eight songs excel at. Or…shall we say, Xcel?
For my purposes here, I’m not going to spend too much time going into the history and background of each track, since that information is already well documented elsewhere and most of my readers are already familiar with the details of when, where, and with whom these tracks were recorded. But I will say this much. Even though the album is being touted as an album containing tracks recorded between 1983 and 1999, most of these are tracks recorded in the 90’s (Xscape may date slightly later, around 2000 or 2001) so that explains much of the album’s thematic and stylistic cohesiveness. The two love ballads on the album-Love Never Felt So Good and Loving You-are both from the 80’s. Both stylistically and vocally, they seem just a bit out of sync with the rest of the album, especially Love Never Felt So Good, which harkens back to Michael’s youthful, r&b era ala’ Off The Wall and Thriller. That is certainly not a bad thing in itself; it just makes for a bit of a jarring juxtaposition with the other tracks on the album, especially when you have “Chicago” following right on the heels of it.
Anyway, here is my track-by-track breakdown:
Love Never Felt So Good-Michael’s 1983 recording, co-penned with Paul Anka, becomes the sandwich piece of the album. We get no less than three versions of it. First, there is the updated version featuring only Michael, which kicks off the portion of the album featuring the eight updated tracks. Then, for those who have the deluxe edition, the demo segment of the album is again kicked off with Love Never Felt So Good, a spare treat with just Michael’s voice and piano. The bookend track of the deluxe album is yet another version, the one featuring Justin Timberlake that has been released as the first single.
I’ve said before that, while this is certainly a catchy and pleasant enough song, it’s not one I’m jumping out of my chair for. This track would have probably been, at best, a B side back in the day. But I can understand why people are liking it, and I also understand some of the wisdom behind its inclusion, as well as its push for the lead single. It has an instantly nostalgic feel, and brings back those happy memories of the era in which most of us first fell in love with Michael’s voice. It has that same sort of contagious energy and infectious joy of hits like “Rock With You.” As I have said before, it is not as much to my personal taste as most of the rest of the album, mostly because I do tend to prefer the darker and grittier material of Michael’s more mature work, but I do like it. As far as which version is the “best,” I am about equally divided between the three versions. Although I am still opposed to the idea of mash-up duets, Justin Timberlake’s presence on the track is not overpowering. I think the edge has to go to Michael’s solo version, however. The demo is interesting for the sparse vocal performance.
While I am on the subject, this is probably a good time to talk about the new video. Okay; it’s cute, and like I’ve said, I’m not here to burst any bubbles or rain on the parade of Michael’s current success. Again, people are digging it and that’s cool. It’s obviously meant to be a loving tribute. But, but, but…Michael Jackson was the great innovator of music video. They have already done this, with the clips of past videos and people imitating his dance moves. Michael worked hard to make every video an epic event. I realize they will never be able to emulate what Michael did without him, but it just seems like they could come up with something more creative than these cheesy efforts.
What do you guys think?
Chicago-Oh my god, could a vocal get any sexier or hotter than this! Sorry, I must indulge my fan girldom on this one. If Love Never Felt So Good is Michael at his most boyish charming, this is full blown mature and sexy Michael, singing in a low voice to die for about an affair with a married woman. It’s an interesting song, in which the narrator confronts the woman’s husband, not in showdown fashion, but rather, to engage in a dialog of how they have both been victimized by her lies and betrayal. The song features an odd structure, in which Michael croons in his familiar tender and romantic style as he relates the background story of the relationship, overlaid by his clipped, angry style as he basically tells the husband that they’ve both been screwed by the two-timing b**tch. This is a brooding, sensual ballad that I could have seen Michael eventually sculpting into something along the lines of “Dirty Diana,” “Give In To Me,” or “Who Is It.” I have seen some reviews comparing it to “Liberian Girl” although I don’t get that comparison at all. To me, it has much more in common with the three I mentioned. Perhaps musically, it reminds people of “Liberian Girl” but “Liberian Girl” was a sweet, romantic, straightforward love song. Thematically, “Chicago” has much more in common with Michael’s canon of sexual cautionary tales. These works, collectively, have a certain misogynistic quality about them. The fact that most of the women in Michael’s works were either romanticized ideals (like “Liberian Girl”) or two-timing, backstabbing whores only out to use men is an interesting duality that has been discussed before, and certainly analyzed by many scholars and critics. It is, again, part of what Levy is referring to when he speaks of the ever present tension in Michael’s work between agony and ecstasy-of which love and romance, of course, is very much an integral part of. Throughout those songs, Michael presents himself, or his persona, interchangeably as both seducer and seduced, but in most cases it is always himself (the male of the relationship) who is victimized.
But pedantic analysis aside, “Chicago” is simply pretty darn hot, as Michael sings all about being used simply as an object of sexual gratification. I’ve listened to both the contemporized and original versions, and I think the updated production is very faithful to the original. The song also fits the album’s overall theme in a very interesting way. It’s easy to imagine the cheating wife as the same woman from “Slave to the Rhythm,” who uses this latest sexual infatuation as just one more way of seeking her own version of escape. Inevitably, the story that emerges becomes a tale of three victims-the woman who looks to sexual gratification to escape her own reality; the wronged husband, and the narrator who now must deal with the consequences of guilt for his actions.
Loving You-This Bad-era ballad, while not the most outstanding track on the album, is nevertheless one that will be sure to please most of the ladies. What I really love is that it contains some of the best examples of Michael’s vocal phrasings, the way he would choose to emphasize certain words so as to paint a sensual canvas in the minds of the listeners. An example is the pronounced emphasis he places on the first person pronoun “I” throughout, which highlights the song’s tension as a song that is juxtaposing romantic fantasy and longing with the actual isolation of the narrator. On the surface, it seems like a pleasant enough love song-until one realizes that most of the romance is just a fantasy in the narrator’s mind. Like so many of this album’s characters, he is, in fact, another entrapped victim-a victim of his own loneliness and inability to let go of this fantasy and live life in the real world. “The weatherman said/If you’re not well stay in bed/I was feeling down and blue/And it’s cloudy in my head.” When he sings about himself and the object of his love “flying to heaven” (a sexual metaphor) the lines take on an especial poignancy because, as he says, “since you don’t know.” In other words, this is all a fantasy because, in reality, the person he is singing to is physically absent. It’s all just wishful thinking. The song becomes a touching peon to loneliness; of too much rain; too many TV dinners for one; too many late nights beside the TV. The line in particular that stands out to me is when he says, “Instead of going out to some restaurant/I’ll stay home in bed.” For some weird reason, that line put a smile on my face; that line just sounded soooooo Michael. Who else could deliver a line like that with so much earnest sincerity?
But now it’s time to move to the real center pieces of the album.
A Place With No Name-Michael’s reworking of America’s “Horse With No Name” is a track that had generated substantial buzz ever since a snippet was first leaked almost five years ago. I suspected that something was astir back in December, when the full demo finally leaked. I wrote a quite in-depth, analytical piece on the track at that time. I don’t think there is much more I can add now that I didn’t discuss in that post, so rather than simply repeating myself, I will direct you to that post:
Thankfully, this is the version that also appears on the deluxe edition. It is, quite simply, one of the most exquisitely beautiful and haunting recordings Michael made in the last eleven years of his life. So, naturally, I was not going to be too forgiving to any updates or re-arranging of it. My first impression of the Stargate version was absolute repulsion. I was fully prepared for this to be my “skip song” of the album. But then something strange happened, after only a couple of spins. I realized that opening keyboard riff was so darn catchy, I couldn’t get it out of my head! I have heard some comparisons of the riff to “Leave Me Alone,” which may have merit (to be honest, I would probably need to compare both songs a little more closely to say for sure, but it seems likely). I was very surprised that some critics have actually expressed a preference for this version over the original. For sure, it does become a very different song in some ways, but that is-shockingly enough-not a bad thing. The new version becomes more of a sampling of “A Horse With No Name” rather than a remake or re-working. Which means something else, too. It means effectively that the track finally comes into its own as a fully matured and realized song in its own right.
Michael’s demo version is stark and beautiful, but with the added element of Stargate’s production, it gathers momentum and movement. But I am glad that we do have both versions on the deluxe edition, first of all, so that we have a choice; secondly, so that listeners can hear and compare both versions. I have discovered that I actually like both, though which one I choose to listen to depends on my mood and purpose. If I want to meditate or reflect on the song,I listen to the original version. But if I just need that extra little boost of energy while I’m cleaning house or whatever, I will put on the new version. I would imagine it makes for a great driving song, too, though unfortunately I wouldn’t know since the last time I had a working CD player in my car was over three years ago. I have a similar relationship with “Speed Demon,” a song I never particularly cared for until I realized, one day, it was one of the best driving songs I’d ever heard. (Duh, it wasn’t called “Speed Demon” for nothing!).
One of the initial reasons that the remix seemed so jarring is because it’s arrangement is so vastly different from what we have grown accustomed to hearing on the leaked demo version. Because so many of us have loved that version for so long, it creates a kind of automatic bias against anything that sounds different. At least, I believe that was my experience. My first impression was that the new production was a distraction from Michael’s vocals, but the more I have listened, I have come to a different realization. Listen carefully to this mix as Michael begins to sing the first verse, “As I drove across on a highway/My jeep began to rock/I didn’t know what to do so I stopped and got out/And looked down I noticed I got a flat…” It takes a special kind of vocal skill to be able to deliver such long, almost prosaic lines in verse. While Michael’s skill in delivering these very complex lines is very evident in the demo version, it becomes even more apparent in the updated production, where a kind of slithery dance is created between Michael’s vocals and the synth line (and, by the way, for a supposed “contemporary” production this has a very 80’s feel to it with the synth riff, not unlike something that might have felt right at home on Bad). But where Michael’s vocal virtuosity really shines on this track is with the tension he builds when his mysterious desert guide suddenly attempts to turn this into a sexual encounter:
“She started likin’ me, kissing me and huggin’ me
She didn’t really really want me to leave
She showed me places I’ve never been
And things I’ve never done
This really, really looked like a lot of fun…”
Those lines cut like a razor, and none of their power has been lost or diminished by the production; if anything, Michael’s vocals work against the arrangement in a way that actually serves to enhance and emphasize the intended tension of those lines. I think what put a lot of us off in the beginning (myself included) is the dissonance that is created between the riff, melody and Michael’s vocal. But it is a very deliberate dissonance that is created, whereby Michael’s vocal carries the main melody, while the synth line and bass creates the tug-of-war tension, rather like a perfectly timed dance between the light and dark forces that the narrator is grappling with.
To cut to the chase, I have reassessed my earlier first impression. I don’t think the track is an abomination. I think it is, at the very least, an interesting companion piece to the original. It is rather like having both an original studio version of a favorite track vs a stripped down, acoustic one. In most cases, it is possible to love both, and to appreciate that both versions provide a very different feel and vibe even though it is the same song. At any rate, I suspect this may end up as a future single off the album, and it will be interesting to see which version “catches on.” I suspect, of course, that they will push for the Stargate version, but it would be interesting if there suddenly sprang up a grassroots interest in the demo version (stranger things have happened in the music biz!).
Thematically, the song fits very solidly with the concept of Xscape, with its narrative of a traveler who escapes his mundane life, however briefly, for a utopic paradise.
Slave To The Rhythm– This was a track already burdened with a long and controversial history preceding its Xscape debut. Most of us first fell in love with the version that leaked in 2010. That version was a very techno flavored dance track with an irresistible club beat. But that version itself was simply a remix, although a good one (in fact, probably the best one overall). However, as some have surmised, that version may have been too uncomfortably close to the one that Justin Bieber pasted his own vocals over and leaked awhile back. The response to that version was overwhelmingly negative (I think, moreso, due to the general public distaste with Justin Bieber than the actual quality of the track); hence, that may explain why an altogether different arrangement was used on Xscape, one that is actually much closer to Michael’s original demo in flavor and feel.
The version that most of us first heard and fell in love with (enjoy; it’s getting hard to find!)
I do miss the big techno punch of this version, which I think is a much needed element. But what the current track lacks in its techno “oomph” is made up for with a much rawer and more emotive vocal from Michael, one that emphasizes the song’s narrative rather than the beat. Or, to put it more accurately, Michael’s vocal delivery BECOMES the driving back beat of the song. Overall, this track is really a vocal showcase, and his virtuoso skills are never more apparent, as he simultaneously sings the story while also providing the lead and back rhythm. It is all in his phrasing. Listen to the way he delivers these lines: “She DAAANCED through the night/In fear of the light/She DAAANCED to a beat of her own.” When you listen to those lines, you realize that Michael is managing to do with only his vocals what it took an entire techno arrangement to do on the 2010 leak. Rather than the powerhouse club track of the 2010 leak, this curiously stripped down production on Xscape puts the emphasis squarely on Michael’s vocals. Is that a good or bad thing? I think it is great from a fan perspective, but part of me still thinks the 2010 version had more hit potential. Like I said, this seems a curiously watered down version that almost follows the demo version a little too closely. Again, that’s great for the fans, but will the general public go for it? That remains to be seen. The track already has somewhat of a proven record, though much of its buzz in the last few months was generated by the Bieber version and his legion of followers. But, also, rumor has it that this is the track that will be featured for the upcoming Billboard Music Awards hologram performance. That event is being promoted as one that is going to make television history. If the hype is to be believed, that performance alone should send sales of “Slave To The Rhythm” skyrocketing, no matter what version it is.
The song itself has an interesting premise, especially when we consider all of the complexities that comes with an African-American singer in the first place daring to sing a song that even remotely hints at the history of slavery and forced “dancing” for the entertainment of white slave owners. Michael had used that phrase before, in his Oprah Winfrey interview when he was explaining the origin of the “crotch grab.” Using the old adage of “the music makes me do it” he summed it all up by saying, “I’m a slave to the rhythm.” I have shown that clip often to my classes, in the context of discussing the “Black or White” video and the Panther Dance segment. I had never thought much about it; to me, it had always seemed like a very innocent, off-the-cuff comment. But several of my students picked up on the phrase as a very interesting choice of words, especially within the context of the message that he was sending in the final segment of “Black or White.” Though the world did not know, at the time of that 1993 interview, that Michael had already recorded a song by that very name, it shows that both the idea and the phrase had already gelled in his mind. One can imagine that it was a concept he had been privately ruminating for some time, especially what with all his struggles as a powerful black performer in an industry that essentially was forcing him into the position of a “dance slave” to keep the machine turning. Of course, that is not what the song is about, but the whole, dark history that is implicit in the phrase is inevitably one that looms in the recesses of the song’s focal narrative. Literally, it is the story of a woman who is enslaved by the needs of her family, forced to “dance” throughout her days and nights in order to meet all their needs. Essentially, she is a woman enslaved by love-an idea that seems rather like an oxymoron, but in truth, it is a reality that millions of women can aptly identify with, as so many of us do just that. That is, we go through our lives often taking care of everyone but ourselves; satisfying every need while neglecting our own.
If you have ever see the movie “The Banger Sisters,” starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon as two former groupie pals, there is a scene that beautifully illustrates exactly what Michael is singing about in “Slave To The Rhythm.” Sarandon’s character has now become a respectable wife and mom, living life in the suburbs, having long ago traded in her rock’n’roll dreams for comfort and love. Hawn’s character, on the other hand, has tried to hang onto the old dreams, but time and age are working against her. In a climactic scene, however, Hawn’s character finally convinces her old friend to have one last fling; one last chance to re-connect to her old self and the fun, free spirited person she had been. Sarandon’s character chops off her hair into a new punk ‘do, dons a pair of spandex pants, and hits the clubs. Part of the humor about the character is that she could never dance, but she always danced, just the same. never caring what anyone thought. There is a wonderful moment in the film where she finally gets her nerve, takes to the floor, and just dances. Yes, she’s clumsy; yes, she’s rusty; yes, she somewhat looks like a crazy old lady, and yes, she knows it is all bound to end too soon. But for that moment, she dances, and it is glorious. This is exactly what Michael intended to convey with this song. The rhythm that we choose to enslave us can be one that binds us in chains, or one that sets us free. Our dance is what we make it. Ultimately, the woman of the song makes her choice-to return to her family. But I would imagine, perhaps, with a renewed sense of empowerment, because she now realizes that she has an outlet that is her own-the dance, and the music. The big question that remains: How much of the “dance” is literal, and how much is metaphor? We don’t know, of course, but such is the beauty of great art.
All in all, a great song but a somewhat curious and laid back choice of arrangement for the track. I think the big test will come Sunday with the reaction to the BMA “performance.” It would not shock me completely if it turns out they have yet another “surprise” mix up their sleeve that we haven’t heard yet. Let’s just hope and pray it doesn’t involve Justin Bieber somehow.
Do You Know Where Your Children Are-Again, this is a track that has received mostly mixed to negative reviews from the fan base, but surprisingly, has garnered quite a bit of positive response from critics and the general public. I would imagine this is largely because these critics and listeners are responding for the first time to the song itself, whereas fans have long been familiar with the leaked version which is far superior and, I suspect, much closer to Michael’s original vision for the song. The leaked version that most of us are familiar with was a hard driving rocker that would have been right at home on Dangerous. Before I post this, I will see if any versions are left on Youtube, so that anyone not familiar with the track can make the comparison, as unfortunately, this was not the version that made the cut on Xscape. From the sound of it, it would seem that they went back to the original demo (which, after all, was the whole idea) so what we’re getting is the original demo version and the updated 2014 version. This would not include, of course, any later era remixes, so I suppose the rock version of DYKWYCA became a casualty of that process.
This is one of the few clips left on Youtube featuring the rock arrangement (many thanks to Ladypurr for finding it):
Unlike the somewhat funky “A Place With No Name” synthesizer riff, I find the droning synth riff employed for DYKWYCA a bit annoying. But as with “Slave To the Rhythm,” this stripped and slowed down version does allow the track to become a vocal showpiece for Michael. However, this is definitely a case where nothing has been improved over the original. In listening to Michael’s demo, it’s hard to know if his ORIGINAL vision for the song was something closer to his eventual rock version, or an arrangement closer to what we have on the “contemporized” portion of Xscape. To be honest, the demo seems a curious mixture of both, with the backbeat very reminiscent of the eventual guitar riff of the rock version, but otherwise with an almost identical arrangement to the 2014 version. The one, major difference is that the demo version features a hauntingly soaring, melancholic guitar solo, credited to David Williams, that I wish had been left untouched in the new production. In its place, we get a very watered down synth version of the same solo which simply doesn’t have the same impact. Later, we do get the guitar solo, but they made the mistake in trying to go for a buzzy, “funk” sound rather than the pure, soaring tone of the original. Again, a big mistake in my opinion. Listening to the song at the raw demo stage, however, it seems clear that this is a song that could have easily gone in either direction, and becomes easier to appreciate that Michael may well have simply remained indecisive regarding the actual direction that felt right to him. I do think, however, that given the overall context of Xscape, the track works well. For an album whose entire concept is built around the idea of the abused and the victimized, it becomes a haunting centerpiece about the most helpless victims of all-our children.
Of course, we know that with a song titled “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” and dealing with the subject matter of child sexual abuse, the track is going to draw its share of negative publicity and bad jokes, mostly from ignorant fools who won’t even bother to actually listen to the song’s content. But nevertheless, it remains a powerful message that needs to be heard. One of the topics that Michael touches on in this song (and also in “Hollywood” before it was watered down for the “Michael” project in 2010) is the connection between pedophilia and Hollywood. It’s a topic no one, it seems, wants to address, and if it is ever raised, the Hollywood community is quick to circle its wagons around those whom it protects (Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, unfortunately, are not the exceptions, but rather, a much larger norm than most of us are comfortable acknowledging). This was the industry that Corey Feldman recently blasted; an industry that uses and abuses children and then spits them out, either to die or to survive as scarred and battered adults. Corey Feldman has also said that it was, in fact, Michael who became his shield and confidante against those very evil forces. I have heard all of the rumors that Michael himself was a child victim of Hollywood-and not just in the sense of being physically beaten or made to work. You get my drift. I do not know if those stories are true, and honestly, I believe that even if Joe himself was guilty of anger management issues when disciplining his kids, I believe he would have whaled holy hell out of anyone else who touched his son, especially in that kind of way. In other words, I don’t buy the stories that Joe knowingly “pimped” Michael out, but that isn’t to say that Michael didn’t encounter these sick individuals. I believe it would have been par for the course as a child performer in the entertainment industry. When Michael told us he had lost his innocence way too young, he was talking about much more than just not being allowed to play, I can guarantee you. It meant that by the age of ten, he had seen and been exposed to more than any child ever should.
And so if we go back to Levy’s review, we have to remember that these songs; these lyrics are coming from a very dark place indeed-not in the sense that some would attempt to twist them, but rather, from a well of deep empathy, from victim to victim, and from someone who understood too frighteningly well how thin the line between the abuser and the abused can become, if the cycle isn’t broken.
If that message makes some people uncomfortable simply because it’s coming from Michael Jackson, tough. That doesn’t change the fact that it needs to be heard. And it definitely doesn’t change the fact that, perhaps Michael Jackson-himself an abused child- is the one we MOST need to hear it from. Michael was physically abused by his father’s whippings; he was certainly abused in the sense of what he was exposed to as a child. And it is likely, though unproven, that he may have endured even worse. I certainly hope and pray every day that those stories are not true, and that at least that much of Michael’s childhood innocence was preserved and left to him. But we don’t know, and most likely will never know, as it is not the sort of thing that he, himself, would have been likely to have ever revealed. And in the end, he was still victimized by a system that, having abused him, then insisted on projecting all of its own sin and sickness onto him; to make him its eternal scapegoat. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, never fear, as it’s something I have discussed at length in past posts and certainly will return to in future posts. But back to the music.
In short, “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” is an important song that is perhaps even more relevant today than it was twenty-five years ago. Regardless of how one personally stands on the issue of his guilt or innocence ( and, let’s face it, a lot of the people who are now hearing this song for the first time are going to be people who are on the fence) the song sends a hard hitting message about the importance of protecting our children and breaking the cycle of abuse. I think its power comes from the fact that this may be the first of Michael’s many message songs in which he isn’t preaching so much as he is speaking from a place of direct and real empathy. Again, we have to remember that, for most of the critics and general listeners who are only just now being introduced to the song, they have nothing else to compare it to. They may not know, or care, whether it was intended to be a rocker or a ballad. In the end, it all comes down to the same element that drives the entire album, and that is the ferocity of Michael’s vocal performance coupled with the strength of his ability both as a master interpreter on the one hand, and as a gifted and insightful storyteller on the other. In fact, one of the unexpected delights I have seen in scanning many of the reviews for this album is that finally (and, yes, it is long overdue!) Michael is receiving critical praise for his songwriting! That is a direct result of a tightly cohesive unit of songs and arrangements that finally, perhaps, showcases for the world what we, as fans, knew all along-that, yes, Michael was a brilliant singer, dancer, and entertainer, but more than that, he was also a master weaver of stories. And even on the songs he did not write, he always had a unique gift for interpreting them in such a way that they became uniquely his own creations.
It was yesterday morning that I awoke, strangely enough, with the emphatic phrase “SAVE me!” reverberating in my head. I couldn’t get the phrase, or the emotive sound of Michael’s voice imploring it, out of my head. And it was then that it started to dawn on me that this, more than anything, is the answer behind Xscape’s power. These phrases will stay with the listener, haunting him or her, long after the CD has reached its end and silence once again prevails. It is, as Levy stated, though not in so many words, the collective voices of the disenfranchised; of the outcasts, the victims, and the disembodied.
Blue Gangsta-This track was not, as some reviewers have erroneously claimed, a prequel to “Smooth Criminal.” (That title would go to “Al Capone,” already released on 2012’s Bad25). But the gangster theme was one that Michael loved, and that he kept returning to time and again. The contemporary version and demo version are not substantially different. It is the same arrangement, basically, with simply a few accents added. In this case, it was a wise decision because over production would have definitely killed the song’s stark power. However, the demo still has the edge for the sheer power of Michael’s voice and phrasing, especially the segment where he sings “There is nothing in this world to make me change…” Yes, we hear it in the contemporized version, but on the demo, that line really hits in the solar plexus. But overall, the track is served well by the new production; very tasteful, elegant, and under stated.
Xscape-Ah, the big one that closes it all out! I have to say, for this being the track I was initially least excited about, it didn’t take long for this to become my favorite track of the whole album-and that is saying a lot on an album where I love every track. And yes, I love BOTH versions equally.
Before I break down the contemporary vs original version, I would like to comment on the song in general and its relation to the album’s concept. It’s not too inconceivable to believe that, once the producers had pulled this track out as a potential centerpiece for the new album, the rest of the themes and songs may have been selected to act essentially as spokes, while this song serves as the sun; the center and source of gravity that holds it all in place.
There is nothing really new in what Michael is singing in Xscape. It was a theme he had been addressing, constantly, as far back as the Leave Me Alone video, and which had been pretty much formalized by the HIStory era, with songs like “Scream” and “Tabloid Junkie.” However, the strength of this song is not so much in its lyrics but in its delivery and execution. For sure, it was his most impassioned anti-media; anti-music establishment; anti-relationships; anti-everything track since “Scream” and I will go one better. Lyrically and musically, it exceeds “Scream” (But unlike its predecessor, never had the benefit of a splashy, multi-million dollar video where he gets to romp around with his sister in outer space). The lyrics here feel the most intensely personal, as now the spotlight has turned intensely inward. Again, this was a common theme for Michael, and with good reason, as someone who had spent most of his life as a celebrity. On the album Xscape, the lyrical content of its title track is amplified by the fact that now the singer-the man who has led us on this journey through the twists and pains of so many lives-is now showing us the twists and pains of his own, showing that no one is immune to entrapment. In fact, quite the contrary, the life of a celebrity only intensifies and magnifies the metaphor of a life behind prison walls (hence, the prison break sequence on the demo). Interestingly enough, as I was listening to this track, a sneaking suspicion started to dawn on me as I listened to these lines:
“Why is it I can’t do whatever I want to?
When it’s my personal life that I don’t live for you
So don’t you try to tell me what is right for me
You be concerned about you
I can do what I want to…
Could it have been that Michael was directing this as much at his fans, as to the media? It’s hard to say with certainty, because the song is working on several levels, as one directed to the object of a bad relationship (LMP, possibly?), at the media (the man with the pen) and possibly, as well, the fans. I know I may invite some ire by even suggesting this (of course Michael loved his fans!) but we have all seen many instances of how the sense of entitlement of fandom can also get out of hand. Was Michael tired of living up to expectations? Demands for autographs and hugs at every turn? Advice (well intentioned or not) about how to live his life; what choices to make, etc? You bet your bottom dollar he must have gotten weary of it at least some of the time, even if it may have been only a passing moment of irritation. Now, multiply that times every story on every tabloid cover; multiply that times how many palms are held out for a dollar; multiply it times how many fools are ready to make a false allegation; multiply it times every woman that can’t be trusted, and every man who claims to be your best friend whom you know will only stab you in the back tomorrow, and you get the picture.
In other words, if “Scream” was about the pressure of living in a world gone mad, “Xscape” is about the pressure of living inside a soul that is in danger of sure death if something doesn’t give.
The demo gives a much clearer sense of the direction Michael intended to take the song. It is driven by a heavy, percussive beat that seems to combine the heavy industrialism of “Scream” with the New Jack Swing style of “Jam” (in fact, parts of it remind me very strongly of “Jam). It also employs some of the militaristic vibe of “They Don’t Care About Us.” But perhaps its most intriguing element is at the bridge, where it suddenly invokes a gospel tone and arrangement as Michael delivers the chilling lines that are sure to send all of the critics and psychoanalysts scurrying to interpret them: “When I go/This problem world won’t bother me no more.”
I have heard that, when a version of this song leaked back in 2003, there was panic among the fanbase as many took the line to mean that Michael was considering suicide. He could well have been at such a low point, but it is always a bit risky to draw those kind of knee jerk conclusions when we are talking about an artist and his work. Although the lines seem eerily prophetic now, this was a theme that Michael had been bringing up-in subtle and not so subtle ways-at least ever since “Ghosts.” That is, the idea that one of these days the world was going to find him gone, and then maybe we would all be sorry. But the poignancy of the lines here is that it’s not just another variation of “you’ll all be sorry.” Here, he truly seems to be contemplating the sweet oblivion of death-the ultimate escape.
Whatever the intent, it is this bridge that truly lifts the track to another level of experience. I have to wonder if, had Michael lived to realize his full vision of the song, he might have expanded this gospel segment of the song into something truly glorious, on a par with the “What about us” call and response from “Earth Song,” or the choir segments of “Man In The Mirror” or the spoken piece in “Will You Be There.” We may never know, as all that was left was the brief bit of the bridge that exists on this demo, and which Rodney Jerkins wisely kept intact on the contemporized version, neither eliminating it nor adding anything extraneous. I am so glad that the bridge was left just as it is on the demo, in all its too brief but intriguing glory.
The modern arrangement, while getting away from the New Jack Swing influence of the original, nevertheless maintains its integrity. The horns were a fantastic touch. This is a huge, bold, and epic song that can still sound great blasting from a set of speakers in 2014, while amazingly enough still maintaining the almost identical arrangement of its demo original from over a decade before.
Xscape is an album that has its flaws, and no posthumous Michael Jackson album is ever going to be perfect. But perhaps something to remember is that very few, in any, of the albums Michael released in his own lifetime were 100% perfect, either. The only difference, and a valid argument, of course, is that Michael was there to approve or veto the decisions that went into their production.
Nevertheless, Xscape is about as close to perfect as any Michael Jackson posthumous album is ever likely to get. There is a reason why the buzz for this album has been so overwhelmingly positive. I urge everyone reading this, if you have resisted the album due to a closed mind or because you have already formed biased opinions based on the original leaked versions of these songs, as I had done, thinking that no contemporary productions could possibly do them justice, please open your minds, ears, and hearts, and give it a listen.
It may be that many critics and listeners are discovering through this album, or at least re-discovering Michael’s genius and magic. I will cite a portion of this review from Entertainment Weekly as a typical case in point (and one which further drives home the point that Michael’s vocal performances are indeed the star of this album):
“The most startling part is what’s going on above the ‘modernized’ beats. Jackson’s voice, high and clear in the mix, ages decades in 40-odd minutes, his 80’s falsetto giving way to a surprisingly dark late 90’s baritone. It’s a range he rarely showed off, but more important, it’s a reminder that MJ’s greatest treasure-his constant artistic evolution-is one he took with him to the afterlife.”-Adam Markovitz, Entertainment Weekly.
But as fans, we also owe it to him to re-discover him. He still has the ability to surprise, even from the grave.
That is what makes Xscape so compellingly fresh-and yes, relevant. As the man himself said, “Good art never dies.”