When the Weeknd and Frank Ocean were getting famous and reaping tons of critical love last year, a small but vocal cabal of R&B-friendly critics carped that the indie rock writers of the world, people who historically haven’t cared much about R&B, were getting sucked in by showy art-school affectations, and that there were plenty of people already working within the major-label system who were doing great work to far less acclaim. Pretty much all these writers mentioned Miguel, an L.A.-born singer and songwriter who scored a few minor hits in 2010, as an example of the sort of artist who the critical zeitgeist was overlooking. And while I don’t think the existence of Miguel does anything to diminish the great things that Ocean and the Weeknd are doing, it is pretty true that he was slipping through the indie-blog cracks while releasing utterly luminous tracks like “All I Want Is You.” But Miguel learned. And over the first few months of this year, he pretty much made an Ocean/Weeknd album, except he did it in tiny Green Mile-style installments — three EPs, each three songs long, to a total of just under half an hour. And it appears to be working. Here I am writing about it on an indie blog.
Now, the Art Dealer Chic EPs don’t do anything as blatant as sampling Beach House or namechecking Coachella, but they do find Miguel — maybe cynically, maybe not — surfing the same sort of gloops of chiffon synth that are currently cool with the cool set. The title is no accident: Art Dealer Chic is Miguel hearing a sound in the air, and pushing himself to explore it. But it works because his voice — an agile and feather-light tenor — feels built for these sorts of tracks. Consider “That I Do (FTRMX),” on which he pushes that multilayered, multitracked voice all over a glacial synth-slap, making the track work to support his vocal rather than vice versa. Or “…ALL,” which sounds like glossy Euro-club music being muffled with a pillow, just like Drake’s “Take Care” does.
“Adorn,” the Vol. 1 opener, is probably the brightest highlight here. One letter distant from Prince’s “Adore,” it’s the same kind of ultra-languid bedroom ballad that the master did so often — a static keyboard groove that grounds Miguel’s flights of hornball falsetto. “Gravity,” meanwhile, is a love song delivered over an almost Madlib-style broken-beat lope. “Ooh Ahh” has the most luxuriously laid-back version of martial guitar-stomp you’re ever likely to hear. And even if the whole enterprise smacks of career-repositioning, none of it sounds forced or out-of-character; it’s simply a born pop showman realizing that he can be even more effective if he gets a bit more diffuse. The one song that doesn’t really work is “Broads,” a rudimentary beatbox jam about being pissed off at women. And though the sentiment rankles, it mostly doesn’t fit just because it’s so gimmicky — Miguel leaves the verses silent so that people can rap over it if they want to. And Miguel doesn’t need people rapping over his shit; the other eight songs here offer enough sonic world-building that something like that would only trip up the delicate ebb and flow.