When Michael Jackson died June 25, 2009, it had been almost eight years since he hit the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. (and just barely—2001's "You Rock My World" peaked at No. 10). Billboard reports that in the nearly five years since his death, he's sold 12.8 million albums. It is an oft-made observation that death gave him the comeback he wouldn't likely have achieved again in life. By the end, he was gone–too self-absorbed, too clouded by drug addiction. Like many greats, his creative juices had an expiration date. After the earth-shattering release of Thriller, he spent the rest of his career chasing after that level of glory, achieving aftershocks at best.
His second posthumous album, Xscape, is out this week. It was overseen by another innovator who's probably past his prime, Timbaland. It is a minor work in the Jackson catalog, but that's refreshing compared to the bombast that defined Jackson's post-Thriller work. Xscape feels more akin to Off the Wall than any Jackson release that came after that 1979 watershed album. It's a collection of eight hummable songs, produced tastefully, and sung impeccably. If nothing else, Xscape is a wonderful reminder of the gorgeousness of Jackson's voice, which sometimes got lost in all the showmanship and layers of production. That voice was like cartilage—flexible and deceptively strong, despite its thinness.
If Jackson were alive, would he have released a collection of songs, as opposed to a misguidedly conceptual album whose title reiterated the chip on his shoulder (a rundown: Bad, Dangerous, HIStory, Invincible)? Unlikely.
If Jackson were alive, would he have been relaxed about being so retro (the lite disco of "Love Never Felt So Good," the My Life-esque hip-hop soul of "Loving You," the laid-back electro of "Slave to the Rhythm") instead of chasing the latest trends when it was already too late? Doubt it.
If Jackson were alive, would he be comfortable reaching back to revisit songs he recorded during more creatively flourishing times? (A lot of Xscape's contents are demos and unreleased recordings from the '80s and '90s.) Probably not, though some of Xscape's songs were product of years of work and didn't make the cut of several albums.
If Jackson were alive, would he have made an album worth listening to all the way through multiple times? He tried for years after Thriller and couldn't.
If Jackson were alive, would he have sounded this alive? I really don't think so.
[Image via Getty]