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Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape (part 1)

Welcome to the new 5-part series on Michael Jackson’s Xscape album. You can make sure you catch each installment of the series by signing up for a free email subscription. Part 1 begins now:

Michael Jackson graphic for article by Aberjhani inspired by Mat Maitland's cover art for Xscape album.
Postered Poetics

“He talked always about giving love. It was never about how much love he got back.”
––Antonio “L.A.” Reid discussing Michael Jackson, Xscape Documentary DVD

Any announcements of “new music” from Michael Jackson must necessarily and rightly be met with a healthy amount of skepticism.

Important questions have to be answered: Is this new music going to be something dug out of once-private vaults simply because of its guaranteed ability to stimulate cash-flow for all those who manage to attach their names to it? Or will it emerge and stand as a true representation of Jackson’s certified brilliance and successfully extend the incandescent legacy of soul-nourishing rhythms and altruistic service he spent a lifetime creating?

The now much-discussed 17 tracks on the “deluxe edition” of the Xscape album allow listeners to consider such questions in depth. Eight “contemporized” versions of songs first recorded in the 1980s and 1990s are followed by original versions and a bonus track featuring Justin Timberlake. Critics have been close to unanimous in proclaiming the album’s musical excellence. How well does it serve the greater purposes established by Jackson himself in regard to his vision of his music and his life?

Visual Metaphors for the King of Pop

One thing was made very clear by early looks at the album’s cover image, by Mat Maitland of Big Active, and the poster, by Mr. Brainwash, that comes with some editions of the album. Both recognize Jackson in a way he often said he wished most to be remembered–– as a great artist. The poster by Mr. Brainwash (a.k.a. Thierry Guetta) gives us MJ rendered in a neo-expressionistic pop style reminiscent of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Banksy all rolled into one. Surrounded by the titles of songs in different fonts against a seemingly shredded and splattered background, Jackson emerges as both a creator of enduring art and an indestructible force of it.

The ultra-modern image created by Mat Maitland for the cover drew boos and cheers when first revealed but it may in fact represent one of the better metaphors for the King of Pop ever offered. The upper portion of Jackson’s head extends out a slanted golden ellipse that could be a satellite dish, part of a speaker, a halo, or a portal. The interior of the circle, and Jackson’s face and suit beneath it, reflect a universe pulsing with energy. It may be interpreted as a symbol of Jackson as someone who was in tune with the “music of the spheres” but also as something more. It possibly implies he had been born of that marvelous myth and was someone who shared with the world as many of the gifts he brought with him as the world allowed. It certainly illustrates, as the centerfold image in the CD’s booklet does, that there was always much more to the man than most could see.

Making the Spiritual Connection

In interviews with Billboard Magazine editor Joe Levy on the Xscape Documentary DVD, every principal producer involved spoke of a desire to render service on behalf of Michael Jackson’s legacy. This musical dream team included: “L.A.” Reid, executive producer Timbaland, Rodney Jerkins, Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer of Stargate, Jerome “Jroc” Harmon, and John McClain.

Beyond honoring what all described as the King of Pop’s “greatness,” each described making an unexpected spiritual connection with Jackson. This prompted them to amplify his musical aesthetic rather than attempt to dominate a given track with their own preferred style. Timbaland saw it as a profound challenge:

“I’m doing Michael Jackson [‘s album] but I can’t talk to him,” he noted. “So how do I channel to him? So when I did my music I’d hear him saying, ‘That’s it Tim. That’s it, that’s what I like!’ His spirit resonated through me to give me the OK.”

Jerkins had a similar experience: “When I went in [the studio] I went in with the mindset of what would Michael want me to do right now. There [were] things that I would musically and it was almost like I could hear his voice saying, ‘No no no no, try this…’”

The question of just how well the select team of producers served Jackson’s own well-crafted vision of his artistry was not answered to everyone’s satisfaction when “Love Never Felt So Good,” the first single from Xscape, was released worldwide the first week of May 2014. For those who ask, “Why is that?” please continue reading.

NEXT: Text and Meaning in Michael Jackson's Xscape Part 2

by Aberjhani
author of Journey through the Power of the Rainbow
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance

More on the Life, Music, and Legacy of Michael Jackson

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