Michael Jackson’s posthumous new album Xscape is out today, and it’s one of the most concise pop full-lengths of recent memory (which makes sense considering that the artist is, you know, dead and all). The eight songs combine archival recordings with new guest spots and new production for a hybrid effort that should keep longtime fans happy and possibly attract some new younger ones.
The best track here sets the mood—the lead single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” kicks off the entire affair. You can read our previous thoughts on the track here; it deserves to be this summer’s “Get Lucky.” But the rest of the album isn’t so decidedly old-school. Instead, featuring production largely by Timbaland and Stargate, the remaining handful of songs do a good job at imagining what Jackson himself might have attempted if he had recorded all-new material today.
So, listening to the album and waiting for more dance jams like “Love Never Felt So Good,” you might skip ahead to a track titled “Slave to the Rhythm”—and that’s where things turn to deft social commentary. Here, Timbaland chops up one of his signature stuttering beats with Jackson’s own signature “Woos!” into a dance-worthy number. But the unnamed woman who stars in the song’s narrative is not, in fact, a slave to a dance rhythm.
Instead, while you get lost in the layers of production and lyrical repetition, you’re getting an existential tale of modern working womanhood, stuck between old and new definitions of success. The “slave to the rhythm” in the track is the slave to rhythms of both expected domesticity and work output. She’s “dancing” to the stove to cook her husband’s dinner, dancing to the car to get the kids to school, dancing to her desk to get through her 9-to-5 grind.
By the end of the song, the woman seems to see a glimmer of freedom, running out the door and dancing “to the beat of her own.” But sadly, it doesn’t last long—as MJ mournfully recounts over Timbaland’s bouncy beat, guilt and a sense of familial responsibility send her right back to slavery in her old rhythm.
Wow, Michael, that’s dark. BRB, reexamining my whole existence as a woman. It’s uncanny when an excellent pop song can provoke all that. And for that—and all the rest of the remaining tracks—Xscape is worth repeated listening.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.