Hailed by the New York Times as “a singer-songwriter of searching candor and an electric bassist of mesmerizing skill,” Meshell Ndegeocello has been called everything from avant-garde to a dying breed. You can follow her on Twitter here and visit her website here.
A long time ago, I had the chance to work in a studio where Michael Jackson had recently recorded. The engineers there told me that Michael required enough room in the booth to dance while he tracked his vocals. He had to be able to dance while he sang; the movements were part of the way the lyrics fit the song, the voice and the movement all worked together to make it authentic.
I loved listening to his music after that, knowing the music enhanced the motion, which in turn enhanced the vocals. What strikes me most about Xscape, his second posthumous collection of previously unreleased work, is the lack of body, the detachment, the giant distance between the music and the man singing the song.
Xscape is material, some of it dating all the way to 1983, that Michael recorded for various albums, but then decided not to release. L.A. Reid, the head of Epic Records, recruited contemporary producers such as Timbaland, StarGate and Rodney Jerkins to rework these original tracks with modern, radio-friendly production.
First, I listened to the original versions of these songs, which are available on the deluxe edition of Xscape, and then read the history of each track. No doubt, the production from these top-seeded production giants is great, but if you are a Michael Jackson fan, you have to wonder if these songs didn’t make the cut then because he was not satisfied with them. I tried not to listen with that in mind, but in the end, no matter how much I miss Michael, I can’t say I feel these tracks deserve to make the cut now. If he left them out because they weren’t up to snuff, he was right to do it.
“Slave to the Rhythm,” reworked by Timbaland, feels like a construction site of layers on top of parts on top of more parts that pulsate and flicker, hoping to emulate the musicality Michael was known for. Honestly, I could only get through the track if I were exercising. I preferred the older version of “Blue Gangsta,” which was an outtake from 2001’s Invincible, the last album of original material Michael released while he was alive. I found the original version more interesting — with its accordion and references to Mafia movie soundtracks, it grooves in a way that feels a bit more natural but, by the end, the horns feel over the top and conspicuous, making me miss the expertise and craft of the arrangements on previous albums, care of Quincy Jones and the Seawind horn section. “Chicago” also failed to make Invincible. Maybe it was worth exploring, but it still belongs on the editing room floor. “Loving You,” recorded in 1987 during the making of Bad, does have a joyful feeling so signature of Michael, but it sounds dated. The disco feel of first single “Love Never Felt So Good” (produced by John McClain, the executor of Michael’s estate) is just (and I hate to say this) sad in that it struggles to make you feel good, even as it relies on tried-and-true clichés. Also, I swear the clap track is out of sync between 1:53 and 2:06.
“A Place with No Name” is the song I am most drawn to because producer Stargate actually fulfilled the hope that the song longs for. It has a cycling bass line that locks you in, and we hear Michael sing a familiar melody, based on America’s “A Horse with No Name.” I found the title haunting, given how Michael was caught between real life and fantasy — his own, maybe, and ours, certainly. Michael Jackson is here and gone, somewhere and nowhere, probably forever.
Overall, this album is an exercise in remixing, and there is some impressive production. But the vocals feel old, outdated and seemingly left unaddressed, as if too sacred to touch, but also too stale to work with, with samples of classic ad-libs and chirps added in only to reinforce the “Michael Jackson-ness” of it all. I wanted to root for it, to feel like I used to when I heard a new Michael Jackson song, but he’s a long, long way from here. There’s nothing about Xscape that adds to Michael’s legacy.
The original version of “Love Never Felt So Good,” co-written with Paul Anka, leads me to fantasize what Michael Jackson might have discovered by continuing to simplify and just write with piano, if he had been allowed just to be the musical genius rather than the pop spectacle. There is a true grace in that track — it’s buried deep, but it’s there — and it made me long for his unique talent, his ear, his singular musical heart. At the same time, I wonder if Michael could ever have aged gracefully, musically or otherwise, and if his songs would ever have been allowed to be vulnerable, simpler, there for the craft of songwriting alone. For better or for worse, we will never know.