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.