Sound — 5
Sony seem to believe that an MJ album released today can't stand on its own two feet without big name collaborators, citing the artist's "perfectionist" nature as the reason he wouldn't want unedited demos leaked from the vault. The latest Michael Jackson grave robbery would have suffered the same ills as his first posthumous album, "Michael," if it weren't for the deluxe edition. This extra disc showcases the eight tracks as they originally were, without tinkering from modern producers attempting to "contemporize" the sound. In this state they are generally decent ideas, albeit unfinished.
Allegedly, the producers were given acapella vocal tracks and challenged to make the beats from scratch. This explains why the instrumentals and vocals feel mismatched. My exceptions are Timbaland's "Chicago" and particularly "Love Never Felt So Good," the latter fitting the recent revival of the disco/soul era with Pharell William's hits. Elsewhere, the producers have butchered the original ideas by taking out the hooks and playing "look what I can do" rather than serving the tracks, with over-complication on "Blue Gangsta" and the modern day plague of low frequency bass and 808 obsession infecting "Xscape" and "Slave to the Rhythm."
Lyrics — 5
"Xscape" performs well in terms of scope, perhaps due to the tracks coming from different times in the singer's career. Album opener "Love Never Felt So Good" is blatantly from early Jackson, oozing of the fun and breeziness of his older records, same with "Loving You," whereas the vocals on "Chicago" and "Blue Gangsta" use the tense, unhinged style prevalent in his later work. You can trace this change in his voice from soft and ideal for pop and ballads, to a more strained, aggressive tone that proves fine on rock tracks but is an undeniable decline on the kind of songs that made his name. The lyrics are mostly simplistic but "Do You Know Where Your Children Are" is a good bit of storytelling, and "Chicago" is notable for returning to soft-spoken verses as he did successfully on songs like "Billie Jean." The verses of "Slave to the Rhythm" and "Do You Know Where Your Children Are" have awkward, unappealing melodies in the verses, and most of the album isn't melodically his best. Bieber and Timberlake are as negligible as Akon was on his Michael Jackson duets.
Overall Impression — 4
As much as the original versions of the tough, Mafioso "Blue Gangsta" and stadium-rock "Do You Know Where Your Children Are" reinforce Jackson's musical genius, underneath the music you can see why the eight songs were rejected, feeling slight compared to his best. As for the remakes, they are largely unsavoury; sticking to the original hooks with slight tweaks would've been far better. I appreciate that all these artists owe a lot to Jackson and could be called an extension of his legacy, but the apprentices have little to give back to their tutor and in my opinion it is cheapening to think that he needs their leg-up to sell. This leg-up would've been appreciated if he were alive, but in death any fan in their right mind wants a throwback to vintage Jackson with these posthumous projects, or an indication that he had visualized a new direction for pop to guide us out of this uninspired drudge. What we get instead is too little of Michael and too much of other artist's ego-trips.