Friday, January 2, 2015

“Blue Gangsta” by Michael Jackson

“Blue Gangsta” is an unsung masterpiece, a truly inspired and powerful piece of R&B/pop. The song has a unique and indelible quality and sounds unlike anything Michael Jackson had previously recorded. With dynamic horn blasts, swelling strings and cool accordion strains, the song has a very filmic vibe. The track also boasts a badass stuttering beat and a slightly menacing piano part. And MJ delivers a searing vocal performance, which is nicely complemented by the rich, smooth background harmonies.

“Blue Gangsta” is about the heartbreak of a tough guy and follows in the tradition of some of MJ’s other cinematic gangster-themed cuts, such as “Smooth Criminal” and “Al Capone.” He had a huge love for classic film noir gangster flicks, which was often reflected in his songs and music videos.

“Blue Gangsta” was recorded around 1999 during the sessions for MJ’s 2001 Invincible album, but it didn’t make the final cut. Known for his near obsessive perfectionism, the late R&B/pop superstar would sometimes record up to 70 songs per album and then slowly narrow the list down to the tracks he felt were the best fit for that particular collection. Even if he really liked a song, he wouldn’t include it if he felt it wasn’t right for a particular album. That’s why he left behind so many great unreleased tracks.

The song was written, composed and produced by MJ and New Jack Swing songwriter/producer Elliot Straite (better known as Dr. Freeze). The brilliantly imaginative track showed that MJ was still experimenting and trying new things with his sound in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. He was far from running out of original ideas as many had claimed.

Rap artist Temperamental eventually got a hold of the track, and without Jackson's permission,  remixed it and added a rap; the remixed version features Pras of the Fugees and is titled “Gangsta (No Friend of Mine)." Temperamental posted this remixed version of the song on his Myspace page in late 2006.

The original version of “Blue Gangsta”—without the remixes and rap—was leaked online in 2010. And most of MJ’s fans were blown away by it and were flabbergasted that it wasn’t included on his Invincible album.

The song recently resurfaced on the pop legend’s second posthumous album Xscape, which was released on May 13, 2014.  Producers Timbaland and Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon overhauled the track for the new album. Some of their additions include a moody synth bass line and a more hip hop-based beat, and they removed the piano and accordion parts that were on the original version. The album includes both versions of the song.  I personally prefer the 1999 version. It’s MJ’s original vision of the song, and I feel it better captures the tense, cinematic mood that he was shooting for. Don’t get me wrong, Timbaland and Harmon did a good job, but some tracks are just better left alone; and this is one of them in my opinion.

The song was met with a largely positive reception, receiving high marks from noted music critics and a lot of love from fans. It’s praised as one of the strongest tracks on the Xscape album.

Dancers from The IMMORTAL World Tour celebrated the release of the Xscape album with a Smooth Criminal-inspired music video set to the original version of “Blue Gangsta.” The video is filled with stellar choreography that MJ no doubt would have appreciated.

Original version of "Blue Gangsta"

Version of "Blue Gangsta" with Timbaland and Harmon's changes

The IMMORTAL World Tour's Blue Gangsta video

Blue Gangsta (Original Version) at Amazon

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