Last week it was officially announced that the late King of Pop Michael Jackson would once again grace the charts with the posthumous release of a new album entitled Xscape. Made up of 8 unreleased songs for which Jackson recorded vocals for, the album marks the second release of new material from the iconic singer since his death in 2009, following 2010’s disjointed offering, Michael.
While news of the release alone is enough to excite the legions of Jackson’s loyal fans, one of the most intriguing aspects of Xscape is how the album will sound. With a number of collaborators, including lead producer Timbaland, hired to ‘contemporize’ the unfinished demos into songs palatable for today’s audience, there’s a notable sense of trepidation surrounding the project and it’s perfectly justified too.
There’s a school of thought that the cutting room floors’ of late musical greats are filled with unearthed gems, records just waiting for the right hands to turn them into modern day hits. Whilst it’s often the case that unreleased songs from deceased artists of Jackson’s pedigree are frequently better than most of the junk that fills the pop charts today, attempting to refashion demos recorded in a particular era of music, into songs that make sense in our own, is a risky balancing act for even the most talented of producers. There’s also an understandable cynicism that surrounds posthumous albums; a feeling that greedy vultures desperate to squeeze every last drop of income out of the deceased talent have raided vaults of unfinished material; given Jackson’s life it’s a hard theory to argue with.
There’s no doubt that Timbaland is a capable producer to tackle such a task, his extensive catalogue of work speaks for itself, yet with his love of complex percussion arrangements and electronic laden output, it remains to be seen whether he’ll possess a subtle enough touch. His best work suggests he’s a safe pair of hands for the project, you only have to look at recent collaborations with Justin Timberlake to see that at his worst, the hip hop producer can be overindulgent in the extreme.
Despite such cause for caution it’s hard to imagine those working on Xscape will make the same mistakes evident from 2010’s ‘Michael’, an album which suffered from ill advised collaborations from the likes of 50 Cent and Akon. Indeed, those lucky enough to enjoy early listens of the upcoming album have emphasised that while the modern production is noticeable, so too is the effort to pay homage to the sound of records like ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Thriller’ for which Jackson became so famous.
One quote that lingered with me from the press release accompanying the news of Xscape however, was that of co-producer John McClain (not of Die Hard fame) who stated as follows:
“Michael was always on the cutting edge and was constantly reaching out to new producers looking for new sounds. He was always relevant and current.”
Though I appreciate the huge legacy that Jackson left behind and the impact his music had not only on his genre but also on the entire industry, part of the reason why Jackson seemed to struggle so greatly during the final years of his life was due to the fact that such a statement simply wasn’t true.
Jackson’s status as The King of Pop was never under threat from a serious challenger, yet 2001’s ‘Invincible’, his last solo studio album, revealed an artist desperate to regain relevancy and grasping for a sound he thought was cutting edge, yet was in fact already dated. A sonically incoherent record, Invincible showcased Jackson’s anxiety over the rapid evolution in audience’s music tastes and emphasises the poor choices his management made when selecting producers for him to collaborate with. Considering this last sentence, I decided to compile a brief list of five producers I wish Jackson had had the chance to work with, all five of them possessing the ability to have revived Jackson’s career, whilst remaining respectful of his unique sound.
In many people’s eyes Pharrell Williams has redefined pop and mainstream hip-hop during the last decade and though his back catalogue speaks for itself, Williams would be the first to admit that many of his most successful pieces of production are undoubtedly references to the past. Even Williams’ recently released second solo record G I R L contains various elements that are clearly inspired by early Jackson material, with Brand New, a duet with Justin Timberlake, perhaps the clearest example from the album.
A self confessed lover of Off The Wall era pop music, it’s hard to think of a producer better suited to collaborating with the late great King of Pop and although we never got to see the pair working together, it wasn’t for a lack of trying on Williams’ part.
A year on from the release of Jackson’s last album Invincible, Pharrell is known to have approached the singer’s camp with eight songs he’d composed specifically for Jackson’s vocal tone and range. Though passionate in his pitch and confident in the songs he’d written, Williams was rebuffed by Jackson’s overly cautious handlers and subsequently took the songs to the most similar artist he could find, a young singer called Justin Timberlake.
The songs went on to feature on Timberlake’s hugely successful solo debut Justified and though it’s not known exactly which songs were offered up, when listening to Rock Your Body, Like I Love You and Senorita, it’s easy to envisage how effortlessly Jackson’s vocals would have fit alongside such production. Indeed, according to the G I R L singer, following the release of Justified, Jackson met up with Williams, sung the songs initially intended for him and expressed great regret at not grasping what would’ve undoubtedly been the opportunity he needed to re-establish his commercial relevance.
Given that Random Access Memories was an unabashed display of the French duo’s love of disco, it’s not difficult to imagine how well suited the pair would’ve been working with Michael Jackson. Whilst their brand of electronic dance music is different to anything Jackson would’ve previously attempted, the influences revealed throughout Daft Punk’s discography show a clear affection and respect for the King of Pop’s work; a meeting of the minds would surely have produced wonderful results.
When you read through the list of hugely successful albums Rick Rubin has overseen and the equally long list of great artists that have entrusted him with their precious work, it’s almost impossible not to include him in this line up. Famously described as “a reducer, not a producer” by Kanye West, following the pair’s recent collaboration on Yeezus, Rubin’s minimalist approach and breadth of knowledge would’ve been an appropriate choice for Jackson considering the creatively muddled sound of the singer’s last studio album.
The influence of Michael Jackson on the work of Kanye West is clear for those who’ve followed the rapper’s journey from College Dropout to Yeezus, with West’s frequent references to Jackson and samples of the singer’s work evident throughout his discography; most notably the use of P.Y.T. on the euphoric Good Life. With West commenting that Jackson gave him the encouragement to try an album as a singer, which subsequently led to 808s and Heartbreaks, it’s hard to underestimate the importance that Jackson’s music and career has had upon West’s own.
Though often the cause of criticism, West has also frequently likened himself to the late King of Pop, with the rapper perceiving his influence on music and battle to break down barriers for black artists on a par with that of Jackson’s early struggle for commercial acceptance.
With Kanye’s affection and respect for Jackson’s body of work and his own perfectionist tendencies plain for all to see, he’d have been a perfect candidate to help Jackson re-establish himself, without losing the essence of what made him so popular in the first place.
Given the impact of Jackson’s career it’s hard to find an artist working today that hasn’t been influenced in some way by the late singer’s body of work. Yet given the output of Bruno Mars to date, it’s easy to see that the exuberant front man pays tribute to Jackson with nearly every song he releases and every live performance he gives. The creative trio of Philip Lawrence, Ari-Levin and Mars are among the most talented young producers working in music today and their ability to craft infectious, often base driven pop music would’ve undoubtedly suited the artist their output so frequently evokes.