I’ve read a lot of pieces comparing Miguel to Prince ever since this album’s release. That comparison at first seems right, because Miguel is a supremely talented polymath auteur (singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist) who lingers on sex in his songs without (often) disrespecting women, very much in the manner of the Purple One. But like most comparisons this one comes up short when you ponder on the details – does Miguel have an album as tight and gobsmacking as Dirty Mind in him? Or a musical manifesto as comprehensive and funktastic as Sign o’ the Times?
Which is not to downplay Miguel’s talents, but merely to suggest the obvious: that he’s an entirely different man and artist, one with his own catalogue of quirks and stylistic flourishes that help to distinguish him from the crowded arena of R&B stars.
Miguel’s a little more aggressive than Prince, for instance, which comes across occasionally on War & Leisure. On “Wolf”, for example, he’s happy to play the role of “big and bad” for his lover, and on “Banana Clip” he rides around with an M16 on his lap to protect his baby from the world’s dangers (which include Korean missiles and a “war on love”). Whereas Prince was happy to keep dancing to the edge of the apocalypse, purposefully oblivious to existential threats, Miguel sounds like he won’t go down without a fight.
Musically he’s different as well, with his obsession being to bring psychedelic sounds and studio manipulations into R&B, creating an aura that can only be described using the name of his best album: Kaleidoscope Dream. Prince dabbled in psychedelia as well, of course, famously on Around the World in a Day and Parade, but generally his sound contained a lot more raw funk and rock & roll that indulged his superior guitar skills. Prince is the superior instrumentalist (and songwriter) in other words, whilst Miguel is the more interesting producer.
So Miguel is at his best performing the role of studio composer, layering instruments and luscious sound effects on top of his electrifying falsetto to create richly rewarding soundscapes. That’s what makes Kaleidoscope Dream and Wildheart so excellent – they consistently play to his strengths.
War & Leisure doesn’t. You only have to listen to the 5 minute “Come Through and Chill” to spot where he went wrong this time around; he lays down a slinky guitar hook that repeats without changing for the song’s duration, which would be fine if he was James Brown and could work up a funky sweat that way, but he ain’t, and it soon gets monotonous despite the guest spots from J. Cole and Salaam Remi.
When Miguel tries to work his way around a groove, without the depth of studio experimentation he displayed on earlier albums, he sounds a little bit awkward. “Told You So” is another case in point, a wannabe dancefloor spectacle that runs out of hot air before it finishes because the beat isn’t fresh enough.
All in all, the production is too sparse, which fails to smooth over some of the less interesting songwriting ideas. “Harem”, for example, is far from intoxicating enough to persuade listeners to “come and share where love is free”, which makes you squirm a little at the lyrics.
Never mind, despite the overall inconsistency, there is an opening four-track sequence that is one of the best in R&B this year. “Criminal” is a perfect example of the aggressive edge that distinguishes him from Prince, and is more than a little disturbing: “I got a mind like Columbine”. “Pineapple Skies” lays down a tribute to the Purple One with a delightfully cheesy bass riff. Lead single “Sky Walker” features the deliciously goofy line “I’m Luke Skywalkin’ on these haters”, whilst trap production elements help to make it the catchiest song on the album. Lastly, “Banana Clip” contains the best distillation of the album’s stated themes, even if it leans more towards the leisurely side.
Oh, and did you want some politics? This half-Mexican pop star saves it for the end, with the urgently titled “Now”: “CEO of the free world now/Build your walls up high and wide/Make it rain to keep them out/That won’t change what we are inside”.
I hope he’s right.