The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: Michael Jackson’s Xscape Is Better Than Nothing

Chris DeVille | May 15, 2014 - 3:01 pm

Besides deeply personal reflections, there’s more or less nothing left to say about most legendary musicians in this age of universal access and infinite information. Still, in the interest of challenging assumptions, starting nerdy debates for fun, or (most likely) capturing attention someway somehow, revisionist criticism prospers. Bob Dylan’s much-maligned ’80s output now has its own tribute compilation. In this context, there’s no doubt someday somebody will trumpet Michael Jackson’s latter-day output as equal or superior to undisputed classics such as Off The Wall and Thriller. You can probably find some such blather already if you dig into the outer reaches of your search results.

Don’t bother. You can rest assured that Jackson’s prime was not the period that yielded 2010’s posthumous Michael, an album whose welcome mat was the joyous proclamation “Akon and MJ!” (as though Akon and the recently deceased Jacko were “tryin’ to take it easy“) or even Jackson’s last living testament, 2001’s eminently vincible Invincible. That’s one of the reasons Xscape, the second collection of Jackson’s music to emerge since his death in 2009, in which a team of modern-day producers dubiously “contemporize” Jackson material from 1983 to 1999, is so casually delightful: It mostly goes far enough back in time to capture Jackson before he lost a step. Why bother trying to salvage 50 Cent collaborations when you can polish up unreleased gems from a time when Jackson was truly shining?

That’s not to say every song on here is a masterpiece, or that I’m happy about the prospect of hologram Michael — just that some of these tunes deserve to be heard, and very few of them have that late-period stink. Verily, Xscape is an exercise in pillaging the vaults, no different from any posthumous cash-grab. Patrick Carney is not necessarily wrong about L.A. Reid’s nautical ambitions. But he is wrong to conclude that Xscape is “some fucking bullshit.” The gorgeous disco glide “Love Never Felt So Good” alone disproves that thesis with the added bonus of bringing together Paul Anka and Justin Timberlake at long last. A project like this was bound to unearth a song as lovely as “Love Never Felt So Good,” which is reason enough for it to exist.

That brings us to another reason Xscape is so much fun: Unlike Michael, which could conceivably be something close to the album Jackson intended to release given its proximity to his death, no one has any illusions that this is a proper Michael Jackson album. It doesn’t carry the weight of expectation that accompanies even something like Johnny Cash’s lost Out Among The Stars. That was a finished project crafted by a legend; this is a collection of outtakes, pure and simple, and can be enjoyed the same way any outtakes collection is enjoyed.

Among the offerings particularly ripe for such enjoyment: “A Place With No Name,” which gives a “The Way You Make Me Feel” makeover to America’s “A Horse With No Name,” grooves much more majestically than it has any right to. Project supervisor Timbaland’s presence is felt most explicitly on “Chicago” and “Blue Gangsta,” which surmise what might have happened if Jackson survived to guest on The 20/20 Experience and at the very least remind us how effortlessly MJ could segue from lamb to lion compared to Timberlake. Most puzzlingly, the catastrophically titled “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” scores by matching a ferocious Jackson performance with stuttering retro-futuristic synths and a ripping hair metal guitar solo in the vein of Eddie Van Halen’s contribution to “Beat It.” None of these recordings is going to challenge that song or “Rock With You” or even “Black Or White” for a place in the playlists on Mount Olympus, but damn is it good to hear Jackson’s voice again. Considering that voice is never coming back, isn’t that enough?

CHART WATCH

Last week Pharrell’s “Happy” was ousted from the Hot 100’s #1 spot at last. This week it’s Frozen’s turn to tumble. The soundtrack has finally been dethroned on the Billboard 200 by none other than the fiftieth US installment of Now That’s What I Call Music! This marks the end of eight straight weeks on top for Frozen, but the soundtrack may yet bounce back; it’s racked up 13 nonconsecutive weeks total at #1, meaning it’s been in and out of the #1 spot all year while becoming 2014’s only million-seller (and then 2014’s only 2-million-seller). Actually, Now 49 was #1 for a week during Frozen’s on-and-off reign, so the soundtrack may just be letting #1 go for a short while. It does bear mentioning that Frozen is down to a mere 99,000 in sales this week after seven straight weeks above 100,000.

That means Now 50 scored the increasingly rare feat of moving more than 100,000 copies in a week. The final tally was a healthy 153,000, which Billboard tells us is the best single-week figure for a Now comp since Now 31 debuted with 169,000 in 2009. It also continues the trend of every Now comp debuting in the top 10 since the series came to America in 1998.

There are five other top 10 debuts on the albums chart: emo country kid Hunter Hayes’ Storyline (#3, 69,000), Lilith Fair survivor Sarah McLachlan’s Shine On (#4, 42,000), hard-touring rapper Tech N9ne’s collaborations collection Strangeulation (#5, 36,000), underground rap veterans Atmosphere’s Southsiders (#8, 23,000), and Santana’s Corazon (#9, 22,000). Rounding out the top 10 are persistent sellers by Pharrell, Luke Bryan, and Lorde.

John Legend’s “All Of Me” stays at #1 on the Hot 100 for a second straight week. Pharrell’s “Happy” is a microscopically close second once more; Billboard tells us “Happy” racked up only .01 percent less chart points according to the Hot 100’s formula, which factors in the sales, airplay, and streaming charts. Iggy Azalea holds down spots 3 and 4 for a second consecutive week, but this time her own Charli XCX duet “Fancy” has passed Ariana Grande’s Azalea-featuring “Problem.” The ever-resilient “Dark Horse,” “Turn Down For What,” and “Talk Dirty” are in at 5-6-7. Justin Timberlake’s “Not A Bad Thing” holds at #8, while Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go” is down to #9. The week’s only new top 10 entrant is Paramore’s great “Ain’t It Fun,” which rises to #10 to become the band’s first top 10 hit after seven years on the Hot 100.

And here’s another one of those modern-day chart oddities: As Fake Shore Drive points out, Twista and Faith Evans’ 2004 single “Hope” just hit the UK top 40 thanks to two kids covering it on Britain’s Got Talent. “Hope” peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100. Watch the kids schmoozing it up:

TRACK CITY

La Roux – “Let Me Down Gently”
“You’re not my life, but I want you in it.” That’s a killer lyric, and “Let Me Down Gently” sounds like something I’d hear during an episode of The Americans (did you see it last night?), so let’s call this one a winner.

Mariah Carey – “Thirsty”
The radio rip that first circulated featured a less-than-impressive verse from Rich Homie Quan, but the official version of “Thirsty” is just the Elusive Chanteuse doing her best to fit into the 2014 radio landscape. It’s not on par with the Miguel duet “#Beautiful,” but Hit-Boy does a good job of grafting some classic Mariah chord progressions to his own trademark bleeps and blips. (Or maybe we should credit Purple Crush for that?) Mariah herself comes off a little more thirsty than whoever she’s singing about, but this sounds fresher than anything on the Michael Jackson album I just defended, so let’s give it a passing grade and trust that it will fully win us over before summer’s out.

Porter Robinson – “Sad Machine”
“Sad Machine” is designed as a duet between “a lonely robot girl and the human boy who encounters her” — so, like Her, only with music that resembles M83 more than Arcade Fire. The boy in this equation is Robinson, the 21-year-old superstar DJ who’s doing his own vocals for the first time on his upcoming Worlds. The girl is Vocaloid, a synthesizer that recreates the human voice. It is utterly gorgeous, and it portends well for Robinson’s upcoming full-length Worlds.

Trey Songz – “SmartPhones”
This song has its own app because of course it does. I can get behind the absurdity of a refrain like “Smart phones/Dumb shit,” but otherwise “SmartPhones” is completely unmemorable, and the video doesn’t help matters by wasting a lot of time getting us to the music. That’s a bummer because Trey has been responsible for more than a few utilitarian bangers in his day.

Tiësto – “Let’s Go” (Feat. Icona Pop)
This is a bit of a step down from “I Love It” and most of This Is… Icona Pop, but it’s also a step up from Calvin Harris and Ne-Yo’s “Let’s Go.” It’s also not as good as Tiësto’s topically unfortunate “Wasted,” but I’ll take it over his trance bullshit. In other words, “Let’s Go” is right down the middle. I will say this: I never expected to be such a big fan of the guitars on a Tiësto track.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Fun’s Jack Antonoff tweeted a link to a Craigslist post announcing the title and release date of his solo project Bleachers’ album Strange Desire. [Twitter]
  • Clay Aiken won that primary race fair and square … but also his opponent died. [MTV]
  • Legendary radio host Casey Kasem was missing, but he has been found. [The Hollywood Reporter]
  • Justin Bieber is under investigation for robbery after seizing a woman’s cell phone a California miniature golf course when the phone’s owner refused to let him delete photos. [TMZ]
  • Kelly Rowland got married to her manager, and Beyoncé was a bridesmaid. [Vibe]
  • Frozen star Idina Menzel was scheduled to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” right after Chris Christie’s speech at the 9/11 museum dedication ceremony but allegedly bailed out sick at the last minute (though some speculate Menzel’s performance was canceled to avoid the hilariously awkward Christie/bridge synchronicity). [CBS]

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