The sexual has always been political for Miguel, the leading ambassador for sex-positive crossover R&B. Over three albums of innovative electro-funk, the singer-songwriter-producer has proven himself a true Prince disciple, casting potential partners not as objects – but as agents – of desire. But on War & Leisure, Miguel’s one-track mind is invaded by external forces – powerful men hellbent on maintaining a violent status quo – and he’s not turning up the slow jams to drown out the tweets.
In the last two-plus years, pop and hip-hop artists have unleashed a torrent of protest music, from To Pimp a Butterfly and “Formation” to Eminem’s freestyle lambaste of Donald Trump. Even Frank Ocean and Anderson .Paak, Miguel’s peers in LA-bred alt-R&B, have weighed in on Trayvon Martin and media manipulation. And Miguel’s funky forebears, Marvin Gaye and Sly & the Family Stone, risked both pessimism and syrupy sentiment by addressing social inequality – and transcended. But were those albums sexy? If the crooner allows the news cycle into the bedroom, will it kill the mood?
War & Leisure opens with “Criminal”, featuring Miguel’s voice beamed in on an intergalactic transmission. He free-associates over spacey sonic ephemera – strings here, lush reverb there – and it’s a psychic emergency: “Got a mind full of TNT/ I got a mind like Columbine, a vigilante/ I’m volatile…” But then Miguel identifies the core of his anxiety, and the beat drops: “I just want someone I can trust/ Baby, is that you? Is that us?” This track, on which Rick Ross makes the first of the album’s two Colin Kaepernick references, reveals that Miguel’s subject is still erotic love. Miguel has used metaphors for love before: “Sure Thing”, “Do You…”, the Grammy-winning “Adorn”, etc. But here a primary romantic partnership serves as a synecdoche for society in America and beyond. Miguel depicts modern love under duress from unjust systems: Amid international turmoil, how do we care for one another? How do we not only preserve our intimacies but deepen them?
On the first half of War, Miguel recommends turning away from your feed and towards your sweetie. Sunny second track “Pineapple Skies” – which features swirling synths and Miguel’s atomic voice multiplying into soul shouts, silky dancefloor hooks, and percussive squawks – is an ode to a lovers’ smoke session. Single “Sky Walker”, in collaboration with Travis Scott, is a straight trap-pop parody, from its hypnotic repetition to nonsensical cultural references like “Luke Skywalkin’ on these haters (splish).” Miguel’s humor and a particularly-bananas falsetto run in the middle of the chorus rescue the platitudes from total tone-deafness. Miguel has a Donna Summer-like ability to twist pop influences into a subtly subversive party soundtrack.
Miguel’s penchant for shape-shifting has become his signature. He co-wrote all the songs on War, teaming up with longtime collaborator Happy Perez and heavyweights Salaam Remi (Amy Winehouse) and Jeff Bhasker (Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Nate Ruess). War is less cohesive than 2015’s Wildheart, and outlying singles point to a pursuit of pop domination. Though Miguel’s main audience is the grown, consent-is-sexy generation, his promotion of War indicates a shift in demographic focus. With performances on MTV’s rebooted TRL and the Victoria Secret Fashion Show, Miguel is reaching out to the next generation of empowered sexual beings. But Miguel missteps on “Anointed” and “Harem” when he takes the Katy Perry approach to songwriting: leaning into themed metaphors that sacrifice meaning for cutesy wordplay.
The second half of the album – a more compelling collection of singles – clarifies its darker themes while remaining upbeat. “Told You So” is a vibrant banger built around a classic guitar lick and squishy polyrhythms. “Caramelo Duro” features Kali Uchis, and is the first predominantly Spanish-language song by Miguel, who is half-Mexican-American. (It’s also got a bass line that’ll make you wet in the shower.) The reworked version of “Come Through and Chill” features two verses from J. Cole and revisits the idea of low-key sexual escape (“put your sweats on for me”), but it’s not a lark. Miguel insists that we need close contact with each other to remind us of our humanity.
One wouldn’t expect to hear “Now more than ever” from Miguel, a mixed-race artist who grew up poor in LA, but his political coming of age seems to have coincided with the 2016 election – the first time the 31-year-old voted. On final song “Now”, Miguel calls out the “CEO of the free world,” issue-checking the Wall, Puerto Rico, Houston, Dreamers, and more. The track is less of a rally anthem than an escalating contemplation that mirrors an increasingly aware – and overwhelmed – social consciousness.
A more effective marriage of Miguel’s music and message is “City of Angels”, a story-song that reports the apocalypse hitting his hometown. Over slow-building, minimal rock instrumentation, Miguel laments: “When the City of Angels fell, I was busy letting you down.” It’s a powerful distillation of his politics, conflating mass destruction with the regret of the last-chance unanswered text. For Miguel, real change is still effected one-on-one.
Essential Tracks: “Told You So”, “Come Through and Chill”, and “Skywalker”