If you're like me, up until recently you spent most days wondering what in the world happened to the guy that sang "Adorn." Remember that dozy, sexy ballad that struck the airwaves and hearts of females everywhere in 2012? It was such a distinct, sugary groove. "Let my love adorn you," the Los Angeles-born crooner gently pleads in it, shoulder-shaking beats backing him up. OK, Miguel (birth name Miguel Jontel Pimentel). I — and most women with ears — would gladly let your love do that.
For the past three years, the self-proclaimed soul singer has been tussling with his own creativity, striving to create an album that's decidedly pure and more aggressive than previous releases. His first album, 2010's All I Want Is You (Jive), was a sleeper hit, peaking at No. 37 on the Billboard 200 after re-entering the charts in 2011. 2012's Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA) was a lusciously trippy sophomore effort and saw Miguel's propulsion into the R&B-pop spotlight (see: first paragraph).
A smattering of public appearances lines the rest of the singer's history: i.e., a vocally spotless performance at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards that ended with a failed stage dive and injured audience members. Oh, and he did a really catchy ditty with Mariah Carey somewhere in there. There was a hashtag in the song's title, which was edgy at the time; Carey and Miguel were riding on a motorcycle in the video — à la Kanye West's "Bound 2," but less gross. Ring a bell?
These days, though, devoted listeners are basking in the fresh glow of Wildheart (RCA), Miguel's highly anticipated third album that hit our ears over one month ago. Is it more aggressive? Yes, but subtly so. Is it pure? Yes, but if you listen to the lyrics, they're far from it. Miguel is the king of juxtaposition: explicit, erotic lyrics sung in a crystalline, preciously potent way that make the whole shebang sound like something John the Apostle would unwittingly have on his phone. The album is stronger in its consistency too — Miguel knows where he wants to go, and he gets there seamlessly, coolly, confidently.
"Wildheart is knowing who you are, what you stand for, what you believe in, what you're willing to sacrifice, and what you're not willing to sacrifice," Miguel told The Red Bulletin. "You're no longer concerned with other people's opinions because you're so sure about where you stand."
Where Miguel stands is in a good kind of genre purgatory. One could call his vibe "neo soul," wrapping him up with the likes of Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, D'Angelo, etc., in one package deal. But that's not quite right. By no means is he as funk-prone as D'Angelo, nor is he as poppy as the Weeknd. Ocean's deeply emotive Channel Orange, however glorious, sounds heavier than Miguel's new opus. And you can't really call Miguel rock, either, though he is greatly influenced by the genre. (He gave Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan writing credit on Wildheart's stellar tune "Leaves" due to its similarity to "1979.") The cast-iron borders of R&B sell Miguel short. And though he is classically soulful in a Marvin Gaye-type way, there's something quintessentially extraterrestrial about him. His voice goes all the way from Prince to Solomon Burke to Trent Reznor.
Phew. So what are we left with? The calm after the storm of inadequate comparisons: simply Miguel.
If we zoom out (OK, way out) we'll notice that lately, black artists have been putting out incredible, socio-politically driven albums. Yes, that sounds super general, but take for example D'Angelo and the Vanguard's Black Messiah and To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. If D'Angelo is the James-Brown-meets-George-Clinton songster of today (I saw him in concert and it was the best of my life), Lamar is our Run DMC, of sorts. The two have so much to say about the black experience, the state of hip-hop, politics, and racial issues plaguing the country. Their albums, though they also include brilliant music, are sewn together with this political activism. It's crucial toward comprehending the brilliant music. Black Messiah lashes out on police brutality ("1000 Deaths"), and To Pimp a Butterfly focuses on the undesirable effects of being a famous African-American man ("King Kunta"), among a myriad of topics. Both albums are bold, inventive, and important. It seems in order to be a critically and intellectually adored black artist these days, one must represent and defend the black image while portraying the harsh realities of the current state of the world.
Miguel's music doesn't do any of that.
Where Lamar gives us a stance against racial stereotyping set to beats, Miguel gives us sex. Pure sex. To say a love-making motif is rife on Wildheart is an understatement — the album oozes desire, lusty vocal runs, and carnal crescendos included. And sex is not shrouded by elaborate metaphors in Miguel's music, an innovative honesty on which he prides himself. One listen to the "the valley" and you'll know — you won't be able to un-hear "lips, tits, clit, slit." It's like a dirty Cat in the Hat.
"I think that sex, often, especially in R&B, is talked about in such a [way that makes me think], 'We know that already, we know that. We did it. We heard that already.' Give me something that I can relate to, or I can understand, feel. Everything else has become so generic, otherwise. So I try and talk about it in a more personal way," Miguel told The Red Bulletin.
It's this authentic, personal sexuality that current music is arguably lacking. Take Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen," a recent radio staple, for example. Most hip-hop-infused music rests on the same lyrical formula, and "Trap Queen" doesn't deviate. The two-note chorus is plenty sexy: "And I get high with my baby, I just left the mall, I'm getting fly with my baby. And I can ride with my baby, I be in the kitchen cooking pies with my baby." It's surface-y, though. What do you do when you're alone with your baby, Wap? How does she make you feel, cliched notions of booty and strippers and money-throwing (oh my!) aside? Ass, in fact, is mentioned in record time, and the song really doesn't get much deeper than Wap's cursory glance at his "baby's" caboose.
On the flip side, Miguel sings in "Coffee (F***ing)": "We talk street art and sarcasm, crass humor and high fashion, peach color, moon glistens, the plot thickens, as we laugh over shot guns and tongue kisses." Not only is he rhyming words other than baby, his lyrics feel so intimate — an inside joke we'll never fully understand, and that's the beauty of it. He sings with so much lubricated chutzpa, we forget about our confusion and we still — somehow, some magnificent way — feel really horny for more.
It seems weird to focus only on matters of the heart considering everything happening around us. Miguel could have easily taken a different route, the music-with-a-message route, and put out an album that really said something. But isn't he saying something with Wildheart? Isn't he telling us to fall in love with all our hearts, have healthy relationships, and have it mean something when we have sex? Being sexy instead of studious doesn't make him less of an artist. Miguel is a romantic, after all. And maybe there's something to combating our issues with love, and only love.
Miguel performs at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Wednesday, Aug. 12; Doors open at 7 p.m.; 318 W. Fourth St., Royal Oak; 248-399-2980; royaloakmusictheatre.com; Tickets are $32.50 in advance, $40 day of show.
Melina Glusac is an intern for Metro Times.
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