“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.”
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 Xscape Part 2
author of Journey through the Power of the Rainbow
and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
More by Aberjhani on the Life, Music, and Legacy of Michael Jackson
“True love is rare
First released on June 14, 1968, The Blue Yusef Lateef was not in the vein of pop music standards during that period. My ears would have been much more accustomed to James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, or the Temptations. But the album had made its way onto an older brother’s vinyl-spinning turntable and echoes of it had staked out territory in my consciousness like new-world explorers laying claim to an un-flagged planet.
The only song I had been able to recall from the album while in San Francisco had been "Juba Juba,” but once I obtained the full CD, each of the eight compositions shared something brilliant with me. After listening to the second song, “Like It Is,” I immediately played it again. And then again. And again. Exactly how many times I listened to it nonstop I couldn’t say but the magic that had visited me in San Francisco returned and once more I was moved to lift my pen and write inside the flow of Lateef’s playing. The result this time was the poem “Like It Is Us,” later published in both Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black and in ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love.
In the liner notes for the album, Yusef Lateef had described “Juba Juba” as his interpretation of a Mississippi prison song that spoke of “suffering and freedom through shackled rhythm, sterile harmony, lamenting flute improvisation and heartfelt vocalizations.” It was “dedicated to William Henry Lane (c. 1825-62) known as Juba… the greatest minstrel dancer of his time.” While he said less about the second song, “Like It Is,” both compositions had come to me like memories swaddled in dreams intent on delivering prophecies from centuries past. Whatever truth I may have neglected to respect previously I had now transcribed from Lateef’s tone-poems into my own word-songs.
How could I have known decades ago as a child that I was receiving one of the most priceless gifts anyone would ever give me when Yusef Lateef spoke light in the form of music directly to my soul through his saxophone and flute when I first heard his masterpiece of an album The Blue Yusef Lateef? There was no way for me to know it back then–– but I know it now and I am grateful for this opportunity to say Thank You.
In one of my earliest short stories, titled Me, Jason, the Beautiful One, the title character states that music has always been his “one true ally in life.” When I first wrote those words I thought it was just the character talking. Now, almost two decades later, it’s very clear that Jason could have been speaking for me just as easily as I was writing for him.
I’ve often described writing books as my way of participating in an ancient and ongoing dialogue between creative sensibilities passionate about what it means to be part of this adventure called life. I like to think that a good bit of the words I contribute to that dialogue are infused with a kind of music. And that this music affords me a place somewhere near the crystal-like ripples of the presence of those whose voices and talents as guitarists, pianists, saxophonists, percussionists, and other startling souls feed the world with their sonic brilliance. I know I share some worthy kinship through the song lyrics I write and as well, perhaps, through certain poems.
But none of that, as grateful as I am to claim it, rises quite enough to the level of those who first inhale the whirlwind complexities of existence and then exhale the sublime flow of beauty we call music. SONIC DELIGHTS is not only about presenting reviews of exceptional recordings and musicians that capture my attention and refuse to let it go. It is about expressing gratitude for the persistent presence of music itself. Century after century it has remained an unwavering force of creative splendor in a world where chaos and destruction boom louder and louder, it seems, nearly every day.
In a way, I have already done with my novel, Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, in fiction what I am now doing with SONIC DELIGHTS. It seems therefore appropriate jumpstart blog with a an excerpt from CHRISTMAS. This is a song sung by the character Ruzahn and called “The Healing Time.”
THE HEALING TIME
Seven long years,
all struggle, no gain,
sun comin’ up
brought nothin’ but pain.
Grief for my father,
tears for my mother,
to help one another.
Then came the healing time,
hearts started to shine,
soul felt so fine,
oh what a freeing time it was.
Life was such an enemy,
no kind of friend,
night time caught me screamin’
time and time again.
Screaming for my heart,
screaming for my soul,
too torn apart
to make myself whole.
Then came the healing time,
oh my heart did shine,
soul felt so fine,
oh what a freeing time it was.
One reviewer's shared love affair with music.