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Hoping to build off of past mistakes, the producers of Michael Jackson’s second posthumous album, Xscape, are hoping for greatness. It is the follow-up to the 2010 release Michael, which was marred with controversy. Many of the tracks from that album had his strong fan base wondering if they were truly hearing the unmistakable voice of the King of Pop. Furthermore, members of the Jackson family were equally unsure whether or not the voice of Michael Jackson were actually on all 10 tracks of the album.
Xscape differs from its predecessor. Where the Michael album had been mostly tracks the late Jackson was working on before his June 2009 death, Xscape features songs from his entire solo recording catalog. The songs on the release are not remixes, but are tracks built around past vocals. Producer L.A. Reid, who is now the head of Epic Records, knew he was onto something great from the first time the project was offered to him. However, he was unsure what that something great could possibly be. “When I came to Epic Records I didn’t know exactly why,” he admitted to Billboard Magazine. “Did I really need another job at another record company? Until we started working on the Michael Jackson project, I didn’t get it, you know? I needed to sink my teeth into something that had the potential of being great.” In hopes of making Xscape truly great, Reid brought in some heavy hitters.
Producers Timbaland, Rodney “Darkchild” Jenkins and Stargate are just some of the big names that worked through the tracks from Michael Jackson for the album. There was no shortage of material as Jackson was notorious for recording a huge amount of tracks for every album he released. Some songs would not make the final track listings, while others would be reworked for future releases. Reid, along with John Branca, one of the co-executors for the estate of Jackson and Karen Langford, a longtime friend of the singer, went through many recordings Jackson kept away in vaults. Twenty were initially selected, before being brought down to fourteen. You will find only eight of those on Xscape. There are seventeen for the deluxe edition, which features the reworked eight and their original recorded versions, as well as the Justin Timberlake duet version of Love Never Felt So Good.
To ensure the very best vocal takes were used, Reid and Sony A&R worker John Doelp worked through a mass of recordings. Jackson was also known to record his vocals to his songs over and over, making sure that his very best was always heard through ones speakers. Reid was quite familiar to this process, having worked with Jackson personally on the song Slave To The Rhythm, which appears on Xscape. It was this process that let Reid know that the songs chosen for the album were the right ones for proper release. “If Michael sang a song from top to bottom, it was an indication that he loved it,” he told USA Today. “If he sang it multiple times, that was a strong indication that he wanted the world to hear it.”
The producers were excited to have a hand in bringing new life to these songs, but that did not mean it was emotionally easy to work on the tracks without Jackson physically being there. Timbaland, who had worked with Jackson before his death in June 2009, felt it quite strongly. “There was moments where I broke down,” he shared with Billboard. “It was very hard to do. I’m like, ‘I’m doing Michael Jackson, but I can’t talk to him’.” It may have been difficult, but Timbaland revealed that he had a personal moment while working on the song Loving You, that helped him to center his feelings and thoughts. While tuning the right sound for the song (“Boyz II Men meets today”), he heard the voice of Michael telling him, “That’s it, Tim.” “I’m sitting there and I’m like, ‘Yo, I just heard something. I know I ain’t crazy. I know what I heard’,” he said. “So it’s like his spirit resonated through me to give me the OK.”
As for whether or not the great Xscape of Michael Jackson is just that, it may be too soon to tell. However, the first single from the album, Love Never Felt So Good is already off to a promising start, according to many critics. The man who offered his gift so greatly to the world through music may no longer be part of it, but this world obviously still loves a good Michael Jackson song. “Michael would be proud”, Reid says.
Opinion By Jonathan Brown