Nearly every article you read about new-school R&B innovator Miguel will, at some point, make a reference to Prince. It’s gotten to the point where Miguel is often asked about Prince; he tends to respond by acknowledging the latter’s influence on his work but never really accepts the compliment. True Prince fans know that the Purple One’s sound is not replicable by simply combining eccentric sex talk with pop melodies that are as rooted in R&B as they are in dance music and rock ’n’ roll. To be Prince-like is to be drunk on your own vision, and to pass the bottle at precisely the right time.
This week, Miguel releases his third album, Wildheart, and proves that right now is his time. Though his sophomore LP Kaleidoscope Dream was among 2012’s best, Wildheart is the first album Miguel’s made that truly lives up to the Prince comparisons. The singer returns to California for songs that hint at the state’s musical traditions — like psychedelic rock, West Coast hip-hop, even a touch of punk — while staying wildly singular. In the context of a genre marked by its sexy-time platitudes, Miguel sounds radically fresh by making the personal political and the sexual truly explicit. And in the context of Prince, he’s pulling in elements of 1981’s Controversy (where Prince first got political), 1984’s Purple Rain (where he first really went rock), and 1987’s Sign O’ the Times (where those two elements reached experimental brilliance).
Miguel’s too-good-to-be-true breakthrough single, 2012’s “Adorn,” sounds like it’s streaming out of giant subwoofers on the street even when it’s coming from laptop speakers; the bass bumps as hard as the bed frame does. Generally speaking, this kind of sound characterized Kaleidoscope Dream, which veered into modern hip-hop via airy and intricate electronic production and lingo like “keep it 100.” Even as his genre was getting a hipster makeover, the major label-signed Miguel became known as an R&B singer for our post-genre world. He sampled The Zombies’ “Time of the Season” on “Don’t Look Back,” offered up hazy arena rock riffs on “Arch & Point,” and released something that could ostensibly garner decent airplay on Urban-format radio with “How Many Drinks?” All that — plus his Timberlake-should-be-worried falsetto crooning about how he wants to hear that the pussy belongs to him, even if it’s not true — turned out to be quite enough to make Miguel a Grammy-winning star.
Thankfully, Miguel makes the very Prince move to delve into his idiosyncrasies following commercial success, and I don’t just mean Wildheart’s e.e. cummings-style titles. His declaration, “I wanna fuck like we’re filming in the Valley” might not be quite as unconventional as “I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine” (“Darling Nikki”), but throughout the album, Miguel rhapsodizes about sex like he’s charting new territory in the field of orgasms. Album highlight “FLESH” chronicles a pleasure so intense, its fervor matches the evangelical and its rewards transcend the carnal. We’re talking about sex that plays your mind like an accordion; let’s-take-peyote-and-fuck-in-the-woods kind of shit.
But Miguel, like the icon he’s most often compared to, has more to say in the category of, “things we’re not supposed to talk about” — namely, race. Wildheart‘s most personal moment, “what’s normal anyway,” gets at the kind of vulnerability that was just about the only thing missing on Kaleidoscope Dream. “Too proper for the black kids, too black for the Mexicans,” he says of his own heritage atop a simply strummed guitar, hip-hop beats, Auto-Tuned Justin Vernon-esque background hauntings, and a gospel choir. Musically, it’s a little too much of what feels current all at once, which tends to be Miguel’s biggest flaw overall (too many ideas). But the song’s self-acceptance message is so laughably Right Now, it’s easy to imagine “what’s normal anyway” becoming a fan favorite, regardless.
Along the lines of his California theme, “leaves” is cleanly punkish and purposefully lo-fi in aesthetic, with a clipped angst that doesn’t fully emerge until the drums kick in and Miguel’s voice gets a strong echo. He’s singing about California like it’s a woman who broke his heart — which, if that isn’t a terribly California thing to do, I don’t know what is. Rock highlight “Lost Hollywood Dreams” feels as American as Lana Del Rey wrapped in a flag or Hendrix playing the National Anthem, distortion turned way the fuck up. The ecstasy of the big break is almost as sweet as that of the body in Miguel’s world, which is truly his greatest gift to music.
Miguel sings about sex in a way that suggests that it isn’t a game, but it can be a whole lot of fun, especially if the person you’re doing it with means something to you. He speaks about romance like it’s a plainspoken fact and not a set of unrealistic obligations, and he does so in a way that — unlike his R&B peers, save for Frank Ocean — is hard not to trust. He’s masculine and feelsy at once, over-the-top and low-key simultaneously — and it shows in his candid approach to musical climax.
It’s been a while since someone’s looked genuinely cool declaring his love from the mountaintop, but such is the parting shot Miguel leaves us with on Wildheart. Lenny Kravitz is up there with him on “face the sun,” playing a solo that sounds a little like the intro to “When Doves Cry” while a strong breeze accentuates their dramatically unbuttoned shirts. “You’re the only one,” Miguel screams to his girl, giving zero fucks that he’s playing loud enough for the gods to hear. True originals don’t get embarrassed.