Reworking R&B and California imagery simultaneously.
R&B is in the midst of a creative renaissance, as D'Angelo, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd and many more pull the genre in all sorts of new directions.
With his new album "Wildheart" (RCA), Miguel makes a strong argument for becoming the leader of that growing pack. Not only does he follow the tradition of soulful experimentation built by Prince and Sly Stone, but he puts his own twist on it, dropping in elements of hip-hop, EDM and rock.
The biggest surprise, though, is how easily Miguel's ambitious experiments transform into earworms. "A Beautiful Exit," for example, is a churning mix of grunge guitar riffs, news clips and spacey synths, but the singsong melody is so strong that it sticks with you. The first single "Coffee" traces the trajectory of a romantic encounter: "Wordplay turns into gunplay, gunplay turns into pillow talk, pillow talk turns into sweet dreams, sweet dreams turns into coffee in the morning." It's a gorgeous love song that also shows how Miguel's mind works -- making one bold leap after another, eventually jumping into religious imagery and astrology -- a grand example of how his scope has broadened from the already spectacular hit "Adorn" from his previous, Grammy-winning album "Kaleidoscope Dream."
On "What's Normal Anyway?" Miguel rides a funky beat and a minimalist synth riff as he worries about not fitting in. "Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans," the bi-racial singer croons to open the meditation about identity.
Miguel has also become inspired by his move from New York to Los Angeles. He captures the vibe of his new home in the porn-informed "The Valley," the Prince-ly rock collapse of "Hollywood Dreams," and in "NWA," the straight-outta-Compton gangsta-rap tale told in falsetto tones that even features Death Row standout Kurupt delivering a movie-grade sinister verse.
In an era where layers of production can obscure a large number of artistic sins, Miguel strips as much as he can away. But, as he shows on the uplifting "Face the Sun," featuring guitar work from Lenny Kravitz, that doesn't make him or his "Wildheart" any less potent.
THE GRADE A