Is there a phrase in pop that better signifies the listener should proceed with caution than "posthumous album"?
If so, then surely it is "second posthumous album". The implicit message seems to be "hey, remember those songs the artist deemed unsuitable for release during their lifetime that we went and stuck on an album anyway? Well here are the songs that didn't make that record!"
Of course, there was a time when the idea of hearing Michael Jackson's unreleased material wouldn't have seemed like a terrible idea. Given the sheer quality of his peak period – from 1979's Off the Wall and arguably stretching as far as 1991's Dangerous, via the certified 80s classics Thriller and Bad – Jackson's studio floor scrapings always had the potential to shine.
That was until 2010 when we heard Michael, a hastily assembled collection of off-cuts that sounded so ropey that even members of his family – in possibly not the greatest promotional technique ever conceived – questioned if it was actually him singing on the record.
You'd be forgiven, then, for not getting too excited about Xscape. Yet when its first single, Love Never Felt So Good, appeared online in early May it confounded predictions once more: joyous disco held together with resounding piano bass notes and soaring strings. It's a great example of what Xscape strives to achieve, taking eight old demos of Jackson's songs (Love Never Felt So Good was originally recorded after Thriller in 1983 but failed to make the cut for follow-up Bad) and handing them over to contemporary producers – Timbaland oversees the project, with help from Rodney Jerkins and Rihanna producers Stargate – for a modern makeover. Unlike with Michael, you can certainly hear the time and devotion applied here.
Occasionally, there are echoes of Jackson's previous hits that reveal the huge time span from which Epic's chief executive, LA Reid, cherry-picked these tracks. A Place With No Name bounces along on a backdrop almost identical to 1987's Leave Me Alone, whereas Blue Gangsta's precision-tooled R&B half breaks out into the vocal hook from 1995's Earth Song. There are also, inevitably, some uncomfortable moments: the bubbly electro backing of Do You Know Where Your Children Are may be adorned with those famous "hee hee" yelps but the song's lyric – "She wrote that she is tired of stepdaddy using her/Saying that he'll buy her things, while sexually abusing her" – makes it easy to understand why someone may have had a quiet word in Jackson's ear at the time about keeping this one in the vaults.
It raises the question of whether this album has indeed been made "in keeping with what Michael wanted", as Reid told an audience in Sydney last month. Musically, too, it's hard to say. On the one hand you can't imagine the latter-day Jackson, his powers on the wane, feeling comfortable with the icy synth lines and stuttering beats of Chicago. On the other, the 80s Jackson, who with Quincy Jones forged pop, rock and R&B together into something altogether unique, might have scoffed at the soulful Loving You's lack of sonic adventure.
Trying to guess what constitutes the true mindset of Michael Jackson is probably a pointless exercise anyway given this was a man who once commissioned an oil painting of himself, Abraham Lincoln, Einstein, the Mona Lisa and ET all wearing his trademark glittery glove and shades. Far better to judge the eight tracks here on their own merit, which, for all their inevitable lack of coherence as a set, serve to remind you why Jackson was once pop's premier genius, still cited by the likes of Pharell Williams and Justin Timberlake. You could even say it's a fitting bookend to the man's career, although with the way things have panned out since his death, maybe that third posthumous album will be a stone cold classic.
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