This weekend on All Things Considered, NPR Music's critic Ann Powers spoke with guest host Tess Vigeland about Xscape: the posthumous Michael Jackson album released Tuesday, on which contemporary producers flesh out unfinished demos from throughout Jackson's career. (Read our review for details.)
In an exchange that didn't make the radio broadcast, Powers says the lineup of material on Xscape makes it an outlier in the world of posthumous albums, which usually fall into one of three categories:
- Warm to the Touch. "Usually the best posthumous releases are ones that come out shortly after the death of the artist, that were in the works before the artist died," Powers says. "A great example is The Notorious B.I.G.'s album Life After Death; it's a hip-hop classic. Or Grievous Angel by the country-rock great Gram Parsons, or Dreaming of You by Selena. These are albums that the artists would have made the way they were made — in fact, did, basically. And then their death tragically interrupted the flow of their career."
- The Infinite Vault. "On the other side we have the seemingly bottomless catalogs of Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur — artists who, maybe, we are really starting to get to the stuff in the back of the closet. And even though it's historically valuable, it's not going to give us what the greatest, or even the middling, recordings [by those artists] are going to give us."
- Potpourri. "And then there are examples like An American Prayer, which is a record that has Jim Morrison reciting poetry over music by the remaining members of The Doors. I think that just never really needed to exist."
Xscape, Powers says, matches none of these profiles exactly. As part of Jackson's continuing story, however, it's a natural fit: A first batch of unreleased recordings hit shelves way back in 2010, just a year and change after his death, and various demos and raw vocal tracks have been surfacing for years. Powers says that while nothing on Xscape is history-making, it does enrich our sense of Jackson's life — including the parts that were hard to watch.
"In several cases, these songs are kind of disturbing: There's some paranoia expressed, there are some typical 'What about the children?' lyrics that are kind of upsetting. But I think we need that," Powers says. "We need to know every side of what Michael Jackson was, including the darker elements of his vision, the more problematic elements of his vision, as well as the beauty and genius that he was.
"Over the long term, an artist's legacy changes time and time again, and everything we hear from someone like Michael Jackson is going to help us understand him better. Sometimes we might not love what we hear, or maybe we think it's not framed the way we'd like. But I welcome all the information."