‘Xscape’ keeps MJ’s voice ‘pure and raw’

Written By By Edna Gunderson Gannett News Service Posted: 05/12/2014, 11:34am

Five years after his death, there’s no escaping Michael Jackson. The latest evidence, Xscape, arrives Tuesday with eight “contemporized” castoffs the superstar recorded from 1983 to 1999.

The project, completed at warp speed compared with the glacial pace Jackson kept during his career, was hatched in September when Epic Records chief Antonio “L.A.” Reid met with Jackson estate co-executor John Branca.

Reid proposed a vault search for material that could be modernized without violating Jackson’s artistic identity. He didn’t want scraps.

“My guiding principle was simple,” says Reid, who curated the project. “If Michael sang a song from top to bottom, it was an indication that he loved it. If he sang it multiple times, that was a strong indication that he wanted the world to hear it.”

Reid wasn’t convinced of Xscape’s viability until he heard Love Never Felt So Good, a piano-driven tune written and recorded by Jackson and Paul Anka in 1983. “That was the seed that gave birth to this project,” he says.

That update was released last week with a companion version featuring Justin Timberlake (the duet and original recording appear on the deluxe edition).

Reid approached Timbaland, also known as Timothy Zachery Mosley, “my favorite producer on Earth, period.” He chose five songs to reconstruct, including Slave to the Rhythm, the tune Reid and Babyface wrote for Jackson during the Dangerous sessions in 1991.

“Michael came by the studio and heard Slave to the Rhythm, just the drums and bass, and he loved it,” Reid recalls. “He sang it 24 times, without a break. It was a beautiful moment.”

Rodney Jerkins signed on to overhaul the title track 15 years after he played a demo for Jackson over the phone. Stargate, a Norwegian duo Jackson admired, produced A Place With No Name, a reimagining of America’s A Horse With No Name.

Reid’s sole dictate: Leave Jackson’s vocals intact. “I wanted Michael’s voice pure and raw, not cut into bits and pieces.”

News of Xscape initially met with cynicism, then rising enthusiasm as early listeners spread word of the album’s virtues.

“I had to get my arms around not being able to measure up to Thriller or Off the Wall,” Reid says. “No matter how good we make this, Michael’s not here.”

Regardless of its reception, Reid won’t be making an encore. “I’m done,” he says.

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