If you’ve ever seen Miguel live, you know that he was basically born to be a successful entertainer. He’s too beautiful, too talented, too slickly assured to live out half his waking hours in an office somewhere, and it’s virtually impossible to imagine him doing retail or food service or international diplomacy or whatever. He’s a crisp, precise perfectionist onstage, his every dance step and flirty eyebrow-waggle planned out minutely in a rehearsal studio weeks ahead of time. So it’s been fascinating to watch his career-long evolution into a hazily soulful stoner-messiah type. At the very beginning of his career, with his unjustly kinda-forgotten 2010 debut All I Want Is You, Miguel was pushing for something resembling mainstream R&B stardom. But mainstream R&B stardom doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not in the way it did in past decades. So Miguel’s pushed himself toward more free-flowing music while still coming across as a slick professional. It’s like watching Usher, in real time, doing his best to become Hendrix, and doing a better job than anyone could’ve possibly anticipated.
War & Leisure, Miguel’s newest, is the most languorous, expansive thing he’s ever made. The instruments blur into one another in ways that they never have, and the mathematical clarity of his songwriting doesn’t jump out the way it once did. Miguel’s last two albums, 2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream and 2015’s Wildheart, both pushed in that direction, but they both had sharp and immediate burners that became radio hits (“Adorn” on Kaleidoscope Dream, “Coffee” on Wildheart). War & Leisure doesn’t have anything like that. The Travis Scott collab “Sky Walker” has done OK on the charts, but it’s as dizzy as anything else on the album, and Scott’s presence only serves to make it sound looser and druggier. The Miguel/Travis Scott combination isn’t an obvious one, but it works a lot better than either of the album’s other two big rap features, Rick Ross on “Criminal” and J. Cole on “Come Through And Chill.” Neither Ross nor Cole fits comfortably into the slipstream of what Miguel does, though both of them try to get on his level. And both of them clumsily reference Colin Kaepernick. Cole’s second verse on “Come Through” is especially ridiculous: “Girl, you on my mind like Kaepernick kneeling / Or police killing / Or Trump saying slick shit / Manipulating poor white people because they ignorant.”
Those Kaepernick namechecks are clumsy, but they get at something that Miguel is doing with this new album. This is Miguel’s first record that he’s released into our divisive new American hellscape, and to his credit, he does his best to figure out his place in it and to address the wrongs of the world. Miguel’s never been a political artist, but these days, he doesn’t have much of a choice. Miguel, the son of a black mother and a Mexican immigrant father, has even more at stake than the rest of us, and he steers into that on War & Leisure. On “Caramelo Duro,” he and guest Kali Uchis sing in Spanglish over distorted psych-guitar gurgles and murky funk. “City Of Angels” imagines an illicit tryst going down as Los Angeles meets its untimely, unexplained end. And then there’s the tender, soft closing track “Now,” which Miguel sang for the first time at a benefit show outside a California prison. “Now” isn’t pointed, specific agitprop or anything; it’s a world-gone-wrong soul song, part of a long tradition. But as a world-gone-wrong soul song, it delivers, with Miguel investing his lines with dignity and wisdom: “It’s plain to see a man’s integrity by the way he treats those he does not need.”
War & Leisure isn’t an overwhelmingly political album. Miguel spends most of his time singing about what he sings about best, which is fucking. War & Leisure is a sexy, druggy album, which is to say that it’s a Miguel album. On Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel found a near-perfect match between that slippery wooziness and the studio craftsmanship that would’ve once befitted an R&B star. But Kaleidoscope Dream got Miguel onto the rock-festival circuit, and now his music is looser and more freeform than many of the actual rock bands with whom he shares those bills. It’s not an improvement. Something has been lost, and Kaleidoscope Dream will probably always be Miguel’s best album. On War & Leisure, he’s mostly working in the medium of vibes. But he’s still good at that. And anyway, his slick hooks still shine through, and there’s enough topical talk to convince us that he’s living in the same world as the rest of us. And when you’re dealing with a born entertainer, sometimes that’s enough.
War & Leisure is out 12/1 on ByStorm Entertainment/RCA.
Other albums of note out this week:
• U2’s slickly messianic Songs Of Experience.
• Post Malone’s bleary sing-rap event Beerbongs & Bentleys.
• Glassjaw’s post-hardcore comeback Material Control.
• Chris Stapleton’s stripped-back, soulful country-rocker From A Room, Vol. 2.
• Neil Young and the Promise Of The Real’s grounded, environmental-minded team-up The Visitor.
• Prurient’s noise-drone marathon Rainbow Mirror.
• Nicholas Krgovich’s gooey DIY soft-rocker In An Open Field.
• Chief Keef’s bleary, hard-eyed The Dedication.
• Morbid Angel’s old-school death metal attack Kingdoms Disdained.
• Van Morrison’s blues workout Versatile.
• The Pacific Northwest indie compilation Transference.
• Line & Circle’s Vicious Folly EP.
• Operator Music Band’s Coördination EP.
• Hater’s Red Blinders EP.
• MOLLY’s Glimpse EP.