Like most of us, Miguel is grappling with 2017. The LA-based singer’s fourth album, War & Leisure, is his commentary on this new, post-Trump America; missives of triumph and introspection amidst an unstable world. The themes that have been the hallmarks of every one of his albums thus far – love, sensuality, self-confidence – are still present, but they’re tempered with a sort of inward awareness that, in between all the sex and partying, something is very, very rotten in the state of Denmark.
In a recent interview with Billboard, Miguel succinctly lays his anxieties out on the table: “We all wake up, and it’s time to be creative and amazing and positive and all the things that we’re supposed to be when you look on Instagram, but then we’re dealing with these same problems, this injustice, wars between politicians with egos,” adding, somewhat ominously, “Like, 140 characters are going to get us into a war right now?” Miguel is often compared to Prince, and if 1999 was the Purple One’s pre-apocalyptic, no-regrets party album, this is Miguel’s.
Perhaps this is the reason why some aspects of War & Leisure seem underwhelming, especially given the one-two punch of Miguel’s previous albums, Kaleidoscope Dream and Wildheart. With both those records, Miguel was able to set himself apart from the alt-R&B scene, cherry-picking influences that ranged from rock to soul and everything in between. They were records without compromise, those rare and invigorating moments where an artist is able to bend the zeitgeist to their will just by expressing themselves naturally.
War & Leisure, while still possessing many of the elements that make Miguel such a singular artist, is also the first time in his critically-acclaimed career where it feels like he is following the trend instead of bucking it. The album’s first single, “Sky Walker” featuring Travis Scott, is a summery, easy-flowing hip-hop track that mixes trap with mainstream pop elements, isn’t unpleasant, and by some artists’ standards could be considered remarkable. But here, Miguel feels restrained, which is ironic given the fact that it’s supposed to be a low-key cocky rap track about “wildin’ on my haters” (truthfully, does someone as sincere and talented as Miguel even have haters?). Scott also adds to a sense of displacement – the track would fare much better on a Travis Scott mixtape than on a Miguel comeback album.
But when War & Leisure does tap into Miguel’s full potential, the results are expectedly arresting. “Pineapple Skies” begins with a plodding keyboard riff that announces butter-smooth tropical pop, with Miguel delivering his most earnest Marvin Gaye impression yet. While you can parse out many of his homages to his favorite R&B legends directly from his music, “Pineapple Skies” sees Miguel sing the best line on the album: “Don’t forget to hold on tight / While we Stevie Wonder through the night.” The twinkling synths and shuffling beats definitely bring to mind Stevie’s more pop-oriented ‘80s work, but also something more akin to Peter Gabriel’s world music phase. If there’s going to be a standout hit from this record, this should be it.
But as the album’s title suggests, it’s not long before Miguel’s existential worries creep into the lush fantasy he’s created for him and his bae. “Banana Clip” brings up military imagery as he tries to reconcile his love for his partner with the impending doom he senses encroaching. “There’s a war, on love / Just look around you,” he instructs, as a wet, reverbed guitar strums across his words. “No matter where I go on the map / You got my protection.” In this scenario, happiness is a warm gun, and the song’s upbeat chorus belies a darker message: let’s get our fun while the gettin’s good, because who knows what tomorrow will bring.
This theme continues with “Come Through and Chill,” another highlight, which features a searing verse from J. Cole on the current sorry state of American politics. The track is built around a plucked acoustic guitar sample and a snappy backbeat, evoking thought-provoking ‘90s rap classics from icons like Nas and A Tribe Called Quest. Cole occupies the most interesting feature spot on War & Leisure, his no-frills bars contrasting perfectly with Miguel’s suave vocals. The coup de grâce comes in his second verse, where he spits “Know you’ve been on my mind like Kaepernick kneelin’ / Or police killings, or Trump sayin’ slick shit / Manipulatin’ poor white folks because they’re ignant.” It’s a powerful statement, and compliments the anxiety conveyed by Miguel, wishing to just spend time with his girl and find a way to make it through until, somehow, things get better.
Ultimately, while War & Leisure may not put you under the same magic spell that some of Miguel’s previous work has, its merits end up outweighing its faults. The pivot towards a more radio-friendly sound may seem a little short-sighted, but in the end, the more upbeat pop production and chill vibes work with the concept of partying until the world ends. Miguel was already making a compelling argument for hedonism as a life practice with his ultra-sexy R&B, so maybe spelling it out with a light concept album was a step too far towards the literal. In any case, whatever happens in this wacky world, Miguel seems resolute in staying a lover, not a fighter.
For more of our reviews, get our take on Yung Lean’s hugely-hyped ‘Stranger.’
- Text: Cameron Cook