F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Never has this been more apparent to me than when I catch myself full-on strutting and shoulder-shimmying down the street to the Justin Timberlake-assisted “contemporization” of Michael Jackson’s “Love Never Felt So Good,” the disco-y single from the latest posthumous Michael Jackson album, Xscape. I hope others can join me in putting their biases aside for a moment and considering the overwhelming beauty of this: Michael Jackson might have the Song of the Summer, five summers after he died.
When Xscape was announced back in March, it reeked of a yet another MJ cash-grab. After multiple Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil shows and more greatest-hits compilations than there are actual albums, I was convinced that the last thing the world needed was another posthumous Michael Jackson album — even one masterminded by a producer as innovative as Timbaland and overseen by a businessman as savvy as Epic Records boss L.A. Reid. And yet, here I am, enjoying one of the best pop albums of the year so far.
What 2010’s posthumous MJ album, Michael, lacked was a vision that felt more contemporary than the shells of tracks Jackson had left behind, which came from throughout his career. The songs felt like outtakes for a reason, cast aside by a perfectionist pop genius and resurrected by a collection of producers and vocalists that felt dated almost instantly (Lenny Kravitz, Akon, Teddy Riley, Tricky Stewart). Released just a year and a half after Jackson’s 2009 death, Michael was an exercise in musical futility that also felt like a desire to cash in; our voyeuristic reasons for listening were equally gross.
Timbaland and Reid are among a battalion of executive producers credited on Xscape, and the collection of actual producers who worked their magic on unreleased Jackson songs is staggering: J-Roc (JT, Bey, and Jay Z’s recent favorite), Stargate (a staple duo favored by Rihanna and Katy Perry), Rodney Jerkins (the producer of choice among aging R&B-pop divas), John McClain (an A&M Records executive-turned-producer who most notably played a role in Janet Jackson’s Control), and other associates from Timbaland’s Royal Court crew.
Most of these producers opted to work up from Jackson’s vocal tracks, keeping his voice the focus while surrounding it with beats, synths, keyboards, guitars, and strings that groove and pop deliciously but don’t steal the show. If you listen to Xscape on Spotify (or, you know, actually purchase the deluxe edition), you can hear the original versions of these eight “contemporized” songs, all from 1983-1999. Listen to the deeply dated original recording of “Do You Know Where Your Children Are” — complete with a minor-key synth line slightly echoing “Smooth Criminal” — and you’ll start to realize just how much work went into making Michael Jackson a star in the context of pop music circa 2014.
I tend to disagree with the release of posthumous albums on principle. An artist’s vision is a personal thing, and to see something unfinished added to their discography without their permission feels wrong. I still don’t agree with the fundamental concept of Xscape, but like Fitzgerald said, it’s possible to hold opposing ideas and still move forward. Feminist rap obsessives do it daily.
But Xscape is a Michael Jackson homage that undeniably feels truly relevant and contemporary — the one thing that’s beyond even Jackson’s peerless talent now. Seeing Jackson back in the Top 40 of the Hot 100 (No. 22 this week) with a duet that balances the manic percussive energy of “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” with a touch of schmaltz (it’s the Paul Anka co-write) and Timberlake’s MJ-wannabe stuntin’… well, it’s never felt so good.