Deadshirt Is Listening… Bringing you a rundown of our staff and guest contributors’ favorite new tracks released in the past week after they’ve had the weekend to blast them in their cars, in a club, alone in their rooms, etc.
Deadshirt decided to do something a little special this week. Instead of reviewing an assortment of random tracks, Dominic Griffin, Mike Duquette, Mike Pfeiffer, and Julian Ames decided to take on each track from the newly released Michael Jackson posthumous compilation Xscape.
1. “Love Never Felt So Good”
Man, what a curtain jerk it was releasing this as the first single and having the fucking audacity to split its run time with Justin Timberlake. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love me some JT, but having him do a publicity stunt, posthumous duet with his idol is just odd. I could see if Michael got to be actively involved in the proceedings, then it could play out sort of like a dance pop version of Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier’s game of cat and mouse in Sleuth. Mercifully, the solo version that opens Xscape is an absolute delight, managing to be contemporary, referencing the posh disco pop of “Get Lucky” and the like, while harkening to a more classical era.
To be frank, the one nagging feeling I had throughout my first several spins of this song was that we just aren’t worthy. I love modern pop music and I’m not one of those fuddy duddies who wishes things were “how they used to be,” desperately clutching onto a tattered copy of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Albums” issue, but the sweetness on display here, the majesty, the absolute joy this song brings…
It just feels so good.
– Dominic Griffin
One of the things I love about Michael Jackson is how unique his perspective always was. Here, with the “other man” narrative that’s very popular in R&B, there’s a palpable sense of regret in his voice. Other entertainers might come off as arrogant singing to someone about fucking their wife, but MJ just wants to clear his name and tell his side of the story, perpetually persecuted and professing his relative innocence.
Timbaland is thankfully restrained here, forgoing his usual diet of vocal sample, foley artist style beatbox percussion and aggressive synths to craft a suitable backing track for Jackson’s powerful confessional. The original version presented on this LP is sublime, if slight, delivering a breezy feeling somewhat unbefitting a song about adultery, but the “contemporized” take goes toe to toe with anything on the radio today, solemnly reminding us just what a powerful force the King of Pop was, even in this synthetically resurrected form.
– Dominic Griffin
3. “Loving You”
Can you imagine following up Thriller – the biggest album in the world and a Rosetta Stone for pop and soul for generations to come – with a double album? Allegedly, it was a possibility, with as many as 30 tunes conceived for Bad. As a 25th anniversary reissue of that album released in 2012 was quick to prove, Michael’s outtakes weren’t obvious radio singles, but breezy concepts that, had they been fully realized, might have carved out a spot next to Prince in the “ambitious R&B double-albums of 1987” category.
“Loving You” comes from the same sessions that ultimately resulted in Bad, and further showcases how much that record deserves a place in the sun, apart from its best-selling predecessor. Anchored by a laid-back falsetto lead and dazzling multi-tracked background vocals, Timbaland and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon’s new production is heavy on fluttery synths and a simple but heavy bass line in the chorus. It turns the track into the perfect soundtrack for your next date at roller-skating rink this summer. (The new track is one of a surprising few that actually surpasses the demo included on the deluxe package, which suffers from poor tape quality that causes the opening synths to go wildly in and out of pitch.)
– Mike Duquette
4. “A Place With No Name”
“A Place With No Name” starts out with an attention-grabbing undulating synth bassline. It is so striking because it’s unlike anything heard in a typical Michael Jackson song, or even in any of the preceding tracks on this album. Once the beat kicks in, the song becomes sort of an electronic shuffle. Underneath all the fancy and impressive production and instrumentation, however, this song is basically a blues ballad. MJ recounts, in typical ballad fasion, his encounter with a mysterious woman who takes him to this magical utopia which, as the title suggests, has no name. It’s the interesting juxtaposition of old (folk and blues ballads) and new (all the cool synths and beats) that makes this song so cool.
If while listening to this song, you notice a similarity to “A Horse WIth No Name” by the band America, that resemblance is not by mistake. Apparently the song is a bit of an homage to the seminal America tune; the original version of “Place,” approved in 2008 and included in the deluxe edition of Xscape, even has a sample of the guitars from “Horse” during the verses. It makes sense then that “A Place With No Name” would be so catchy since “A Horse With No Name” is probably America’s most enduring work.
The one thing that irks me about this song is in the chorus, Jackson sings “Take me to a place without no name.” Usually a double negative is fine, but when it clashes with your song title that’s a slightly bigger deal. I guess, if anyone was going to get away with it though, it would have to be Michael Jackson.
– Julian Ames
5. “Slave To The Rhythm”
It’s so refreshing to hear a great posthumous Michael Jackson record that it’s almost easy to forget that Xscape mostly hits upon the darkest themes of Michael’s core discography – paranoia, romantic temptation and even physical and sexual abuse. This hard-hitting dance track, written by new jack swing dream team L.A. Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds during the early sessions for what would become the sprawling, underrated Dangerous in 1991, is one of the most fully realized Xscape cuts in this vein. It weaves a painful yarn about an overworked, underloved wife trying to find freedom from her domineering man over an urgent beat that one can immediately imagine Jackson gliding and stepping over with ease. It certainly gets the blood pumping for the inevitable quarter-century expanded reissue of Dangerous in 2016, that’s for sure.
– Mike Duquette
6. “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”
Capsule reviews for posthumous releases are a terrible place to attempt to reconcile child abuse allegations with lyrical content on a pop album, but allegations of abuse loom so large in the public’s view of Michael Jackson that attempting not to mention it would be just as conspicuous. I’m not Daniel Tosh so I’m not interested in skewering a deceased pop star for the psychological damage that’s caused by being forced in the public eye at a young age, but I’m fascinated by the sometimes cyclical nature of abuse, and so is Michael Jackson, apparently. Credited as the sole writer, Michael’s impassioned vocal performance and unambiguous lyrics about the molestation of a tween runaway are layered over a stop-and-go beat and synth bass reminiscent of 80’s Cameo that puts “Do You Know…” at odds with itself. At once honest, over-the-top, dark and danceable, “Do You Know” almost fails because it succeeds at all the contradictory goals it attempts.
The bleak verses are almost stomach-turning in their straightforward language about the journey of a 12-year-old girl fleeing her abusive stepfather and ending up pimped out on the streets of Hollywood. The hypothetical story lurches into a very real call to action in the chorus about the plight of children everywhere. It’s almost a pyrrhic victory, making a heavy beat an unusable dance track because of the subject matter, and out of place as a song of social consciousness because the tone is so groovy. Ultimately it’s a song worth listening to even if it’s not a mystery why it’s gone unreleased until now – your enjoyment will be very subjective.
– Mike Pfeiffer
7. “Blue Gangsta”
Take yourself back to the strange eight-year stretch between the release of Invincible and that still incomprehensible Thursday when we learned there would never be another Michael Jackson album. The world got really weird – terrorism, some really confusing elections, the Superman-style death and rebirth of cultural irony – as if it was trying to catch up with the weird streak of Michael Jackson, who was accused of even more unsavory abuse charges, successfully fought them in court, and shortly thereafter promised to release new material on a label he created with some sheik in Bahrain. Around this time, one of the more maniacal MJ leaks dropped: a mixtape-ish, pseudo-mafioso beat featuring raps from Pras, formerly of the Fugees, and a densely harmonic (if repetitive) chorus with a “Gangsta” motif.
“Blue Gangsta,” the demo that lent itself to that strange outtake, was pretty fragmented as a rap hook and it doesn’t go much of anywhere, melodically or lyrically, though the ultra-compressed background vocals and horn charts from longtime MJ collaborator Jerry Hey are of passing interest to die-hards. If nothing else, the “finished” version removed some of the silliest flourishes of the original demo, including a Godfather-esque accordion, of all things. Still, “Blue Gangsta” is probably the most bathroom break-worthy of any track on the album.
– Mike Duquette
Michael Jackson’s music is always pretty fun when he takes up his criminal persona a la “Bad” or “Smooth Criminal.” His singing gets breathy, his cadence gets short and jagged, and the words seem to come out faster, it’s very exhilarating. Jackson goes back to this style on “Xscape,” the album’s title track, and it is this song’s saving factor. I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of the production on the album version of this song. The 808 beats and horns make it sound like they’re producing a Justin Timberlake record; it makes sense that they would try this since JT modeled much of his style off of MJ. But Timberlake isn’t the real thing, and the whole track ends up sounding really dated, which I guess is fitting since some of the sounds on “Smooth Criminal” sound like they were pulled right from a SEGA Genesis.
Anyway, MJ’s voice saves the day, delivering the lyrics about running away with proper urgency. What is it exactly that he is trying to “xscape” from? Well, in his lyrics he mentions pressure from relationships, “a system loose on the world today,” and “the man with the pen that writes lies that hassle this man.” “Xscape” was written in 2001 for his album Invincible, and by that time he had already been dealing with his fair share of troubles, legal and otherwise, (although there were certainly more to come) so it makes sense that this was a reaction to all those challenges; perhaps it was left off the album because it wouldn’t make him seem all that invincible.
As far as album closers go, the subject matter is certainly there, and if they had stuck closer to the original version, which opened with the sounds of a prison break, the production would’ve been there too. The good outweighs the bad and makes “Xscape” a decent closer, saved primarily by the fact that it’s Michael Jackson, and that’s all we really wanted.
– Julian Ames
XSCAPE is available now both physically and digitally at music outlets everywhere.