2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Maybe Michael Jackson saw it coming.
"Everywhere I turn, no matter where I look/The system's in control, it's all ran by the book," he sings on the title track from his second major posthumous studio album, "Xscape" (Epic).
When he died in 2009 while preparing for a comeback tour, Jackson left behind a huge archive of unfinished recordings. We'll never know whether the singer ever intended those recordings to be released, but it's not his call anymore. Those strays became the main attraction in a $250 million deal between Sony and the Jackson estate that would allow the record company to release a series of posthumous albums by one of the biggest-selling entertainers in pop history. "Michael," a tepid mish-mash of leftovers spiffed up by a team of contemporary producers, surfaced in 2010. And now a similar formula has been followed for "Xscape."
The big-name producers — primarily Timbaland, with assists from StarGate, John McClain and Rodney Jerkins — do their best to revive eight leftovers from the late singer's archive. The 34-minute set is fleshed out with demos of the original performances, which prove instructive in pinpointing just how much surgery had to be performed to "contemporize" these tracks, to quote the liner notes. Though Jackson's original vocals are generally strong, and the producers try mightily to refresh the mostly stale beats, the songs still fall short of the artist's peak moments when he was alive.
"Xscape" starts upbeat with "Love Never Felt So Good," which McClain gives a Philly soul makeover. A demo – little more than Jackson's voice and finger snaps over Paul Anka's piano – turns into a string-swathed dance track with choppy funk guitar and disco bass. A second version, with Justin Timberlake cameo, echoes the exuberance of Jackson's "Off the Wall" era, without ever quite matching it.
"Chicago" counterpoints two Jackson vocals – one despairing, the other accusatory – in the she-done-me-wrong mold of "Billie Jean." The Timbaland production, with its belching bottom-end accents, dresses up the sparse, contemplative demo, but it again feels like a lesser Jackson track.
Timbaland works wonders on the chorus of the star-struck ballad "Loving You," giving it a gentle swing that makes it tough to resist. But StarGate's funky clavinet obscures the desolation of Jackson's original remake of America's folk-pop hit "A Horse with No Name," recast as "A Place with No Name." Similarly, the trifling Broadway show-tune in waiting, "Blue Gangsta," loses some of its originality when Rodney Jerkins erases its original tango rhythm in favor of a clipped, ostensibly more radio-friendly foundation.
Even more unfortunate is "Do You Know Where Your Children Are," especially given the child-sex allegations that hung over Jackson's career for more than two decades. The track's harrowing narrative, about a 12-year-old runaway who is abused by her stepfather and then becomes a child prostitute in Hollywood, is the kind of cautionary tale that raises more questions about the songwriter's issues than the world's. To resurrect it only calls to mind how delusional the singer could appear in the way he sometimes presented himself to the public.
"Slave to the Rhythm" is a more persuasive social commentary, a portrait of a woman stuck in soul-crushing routine. Once again, Timbaland's production injects rhythm buzz and bump into a relatively straightforward and uninspired demo – coproduced by L.A. Reid, now the Epic Records executive who hired Timbaland to helm the production team for this remix. Timbaland wisely amplifies the bite in Jackson's vocal.
On the closing title song, Jackson longs to run away from it all – his voice breathless, quivering, a touch desperate. It's paranoia that you can dance to. Jerkins cuts a brief prison skit from the original and replaces the brittle beat with ominous bass. Jackson had released songs expressing how he felt oppressed and cornered when he was alive, but whereas those tracks came off as the carping of a spoiled pop star, the exhumed "Xscape" is chilling. Even in death, it suggests, the singer can't find any peace.Copyright © 2015, RedEye