Miguel is gifted. To say otherwise would be no different than arguing the genius of Steve Jobs; the obvious shouldn’t be debated. Over the last eight years, Miguel has brought soul and warmth to countless hip-hop hooks, produced the kind of unforgettable solo singles destined to be played for the children's children of his most adoring fans, and each album has only reinvented the very concept of Miguel’s musical palette.
While I’ve always enjoyed Miguel, his 2015 album Wildheart didn’t connect in the same way as All I WantIs You and Kaleidoscope Dream. The music wasn’t a complete departure from what brought him notoriety, his voice still pristine and his pen still sharp, but the direction failed to inspire a deeper connection. Anticipation was high leading up to the release, but what followed was a steep decline in attention paid. Instead of being a wave that submerged the industry, the album barely made a splash.
Following Wildheart, Miguel grew rather quiet. He was touring, but he seemed distant; an artist touching fans but not engaging with the music of the moment. Popping up on A$AP Rocky’s “Everyday” and French Montana’s “XPLICIT” were rare features, but the gap between them was so large it was as if Miguel completely vanished from our radar.
Several months ago, the 32-year-old started a slow resurgence, appearing on Kyle’s “Sunshine” and OverDoz’s “Backstage.” A handful of mostly unremarkable singles later, Miguel's fourth full-length studio album, War & Leisure, has arrived. Could this mark the RCA recording artist's full return, bursting from the shadows that Wildheart fell into? The answer to that question is upon us.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no skipping, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding and no stopping. Each song will receive my gut reaction from start to finish. Album number four, people, let's go!
1. "Criminal" ft. Rick Ross
I'm loving the dramatic energy resonating from the guitar plucks. Miguel’s voice is to the ears what a milkshake is to tastebuds. He sounds good. Abstract imagery. This is cool. A bit slow with the drop. Okay, we have drums. His vocals sound as if they’re under the instrumental but without sounding drowned out. An interesting vibe. I’m not sure how I feel about this production… eh, Ross! Ross is having one hell of a year. He sounds more at home here than Miguel. He just said he’s the Kaepernick of his city. Kaep is a popular reference at the moment but that was unnecessary, Rozay. Respect the man’s knee. Good verse. The second-half sounds like entering a portal to a magical land. Production is building and swirling and minimum, like when the drugs first kick in. I’m not sure if I paid it much attention early on but the electric guitar is a nice touch. Harmonizing. Angelic.
2. "Pineapple Skies"
The keys are lovely, soft and ambient. Miguel sounds like he has a Hawaiian shirt on, chest out, drinking Apple Ciroc out of a coconut on a private island completely away from any worries. I wonder how much weed must be smoked for the sky to be filled with Pineapples? I honestly wouldn’t mind such a world—especially if it was filled with the pure joy of this song. A lot of passion coming from Miguel. It reminds me of what Bruno Mars might’ve done before this nostalgic funk phase. Here, the funk is provided by the bass. This is feel-good music. Miguel missed the summer, but I’m pretty sure this record is meant to be played on a private island where summer is everlasting. I hope the album continues with this feel good, warm, sorta-tropical vacation direction. Vocal harmonies galore. I want to start every morning with this song, it will guarantee a positive beginning to my day. He could’ve shaved off about 30 seconds but I’m not complaining.
3. "Sky Walker" ft. Travis Scott
I’m used to Miguel making sensual music, sexual music, and psychedelic funk, but he’s not who I expect to produce a pop-ish anthem. “Sky Walker” is summer fun, but it also extends his palette to an awkward territory—or, at least I felt that way during my first listen. This happens to be my third listen and, I must say, I've come to enjoy the record. There’s something odd about hearing Miguel sound so modern but it grows on you. Play this during a party or barbecue and I won’t mind it, but I’ll also be shocked to find out it's Miguel. Travis! He is having quite a year, that Jordan moment line is spot on. This is a nice change of pace for Travis. I’m accustomed to Miguel singing—you know, really singing—but “Sky Walker” is definitely closer to how modern R&B artist merge harmonies and rap singsong aesthetics. I no longer hate it, but I don’t envision myself revisiting often. In a different galaxy, it would probably be a chart topper. Okay. The beat switch is cool. Loving the backing vocals. Miguel is flowing. This is very Frank-esque. I'm not mad, though, I would have preferred this breakdown as a separate interlude.
4. "Banana Clip"
Loving the riffs and drums, it's keeping that warm vibe going. This is the Miguel I know and love. His voice really is something special. A lot of gun references. I was hoping he was going to tackle America’s gun control issues but he’s just talking about being trigger happy. I’m not overly impressed with the songwriting, but the delivery is candy-coated. Miguel could probably melt a Hershey's Kiss faster than the sun if the two were forced to compete. For an artist who could make just about any record sound good, this song is not it. The “ha ha ha” during the hook is the best part. I’m laughing like Miguel all 2018… ha ha ha.
5. "Wolf" ft. QUIN
Interesting. An electric guitar being warped in a black hole. I’m loving the slow, sliding riffs. Very bluesy. Dramatic. “Hide your kids, hide your wife, tonight I’m killing on sight.” Miguel sounds like he just had a 5th of whiskey and is waiting for someone to dare him to drive. I love the bad ass tone he’s taking, he’s like an outlaw in the Wild Wild West. A modern Jesse James. Good songwriting, I’m being pulled into the story. Yes, more of this, please. Those drums HIT with the force of an angry Thanos. Can I get a western soundtrack completely produced, written, and sung by Miguel? This is very good. “Wolf” manages to create an entire world within the song. So much feeling is being poured from his pores. The production is raging with the red-hot heat of a madman who just wants his woman back. “I’m a sinner, a savage, but mostly a wolf.” Harsh, raw, full of passion.
Well, that was shortlived. Miguel is back to being the sensual singer, he's no longer the savage wolf. I feel like I just turned over my pillow. Not a bad thing, I’m engrossed in the sweetness. Hard percussion. SING, MIGUEL, SING!!! Yo, the scale he just pulled off was exquisite. The vocal arrangement wasn't shortchanged. He’s hitting all the right notes. When Miguel is gone you start to appreciate his brand of love songs. He’s like Hallmark—able to say all the right words but not sound cheesy. Well, not as cheesy. Keys and lovely hums. He’s not leaving any song empty. Each corner is being filled with something.
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7. "Told You So"
Prince vibes. Electronic production. It feels very much like being in a vibrant, fluorescent video game. I'll play this when I’m playing pinball. Okay, this has bop potential. Hard to resist the urge to move. I just don’t know about the synths, it’s like a bunch of colorful tennis balls bouncing in my eardrums. Yet, in the center of all those balls, there’s a badass guitar and Miguel is absolutely killing it. I really like this. He’s singing like he’s trying to convince the world that he told them so. Sometimes weird can be too weird. But I can’t shake the desire to play this until my ears bleed.
8. "City Of Angels"
I really want to see Miguel strip down to the most bare production like Solange did. Well, very much like this song. It’s skeletal. The bassline is intoxicating, truly electric. His voice is lightning. The two feel as if they are meant to boom and blitz together, a harmonious duo. Anything else would disrupt this synergy. Some of my favorite songwriting thus far. “When the city of angels fell, I was busy letting you down” is a bar. He’s juxtaposing the fall of L.A. to the fall of his relationship. This thunderous percussion is not necessary but it does increase the intensity. I feel as if I'm standing in the center of rubble and ruin, but what’s more painful than the end a city but the destruction of love? Slice through the heart. I wonder if this is symbolic of love lost or a loved one who didn’t survive the collapse of a city? This is getting deep. A keeper.
9. "Caramelo Duro" ft. Kali Uchis
Up-tempo. A dance record. You can feel it surge in your elbows, hips, and toes. You are meant to move. High energy. I'm loving the bounce. Spanish hook? Yep. I need a translator but it sounds good. The entire second verse has been done in Spanish so far? But it’s such a groove. Okay, it switched to English. This is warm and carefree music. I love listening to music that is inspired by foreign lands; not understanding all the lyrics makes me lean hard into the music. Kali Uchis is written as a feature but I’m not sure if I heard her vocals. Maybe she supplied background vocals? Or maybe the duet styled vocals were the two together? I certainly didn't hear her alone. I could be wrong. All the guitar instrumentation on the album is bringing me life.
10. "Come Through and Chill" ft. J. Cole & Salaam Remi
Ah. I’ve waited forever for this song to be available. I played it to death when it was only on his SoundCloud. Can we please get more Salaam Remi and Miguel in the future? I have to admit, Cole is a mood killer. This song was very chill, sensual, and sexy, and Cole just sounds very unchill. Can you imagine wining and dining your lady, and your boy suddenly burst through the door to tell you about this girl he’s macking on Tinder? There’s a complete lack of chemistry. Cole’s verse transitioning into Miguel is completely different vibes. One is Four Loko and Netflix, the other is rose petals and candles. I’ve always hated the “I wanna fuck all night” refine, completely unnecessary. You don’t have to say what’s already understood. Show, don’t tell. Overall, I still love the song despite these gripes. The Cole-less version should’ve been pushed as a single. “Pick up the phone show me it was real,” is all Cole needed to contribute.
The bassline is so intoxicating. Miguel pushed the sexy button. It’s a steamy record. It’s the kind of music that I expect to play when Bilquis from American Gods is having sex. If you haven’t seen that iconic scene, I highly recommended it. It's one of the best, NSFW scenes I’ve seen in all 2017. “Anointed” doesn’t sound like music for sex on a bed, but sex in the tomb with a Pharaoh. I really enjoyed the last few songs. Closing out the album strong, nice. I can get lost in this one. One of the best options a song can provide is the feeling of escape. Yeah, going to follow Miguel's path and find someone who makes me feel like a God. Sensual and sacrilegious, my kind of party. Keeper.
“CEO of the free world,” what a lyric to start a song. I’m loving this. Another stripped down record. Miguel and his guitar giving thoughts on freedom. Serene. Pure. Again, give me a Miguel album completely stripped to electric basslines and acoustic guitars. Transition was lovely. Feels like the entire world is swirling around this one man. I appreciate the ambition in the way he executes. Almost the entire album throws a surprise explosion when you least expect it. The explosion isn’t always needed, but it does keep the music feeling fresh.
Any gripes I have with Miguel are minor. I’m not always keen on his production choices, and occasionally let down by his songwriting, but he always delivers an enjoyable listening experience.
On War & Leisure, Miguel is not chasing a particular sound but spreading his wings as he’s always done. It appears he has an exact idea of how he wants to approach a wide range of topics and sounds. He’s not lost in trying to discover himself, choosing rather to leave pieces of himself across an array of different templates.
Miguel is an original. It’s a quality that becomes rare in an age where copying is a normal approach. As long as Miguel continues to put his spin on R&B, soul, and funk, there will be an audience hungry for his material.
I was skeptical, but I’m more than satisfied with the end result of War & Leisure. It’ll take a few more listens to determine if this project belongs in the best albums of the year conversation, but I’m far from the disappointment that filled my ears with Wildheart.
I’ve been won over, again.
Early Favorites: "City Of Angels," "Anointed," "Pineapple Skies"
Early Not-So-Favorites: "Banana Clip," "Criminal"
By Yoh, aka City Of Yoh, aka @Yoh31