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Miguel - War & Leisure (Album Review)

Monday, 18 December 2017 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

For most R&B artists, repeatedly being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Ocean and the Weeknd would be taken as a massive compliment. But for Californian singer, producer and certified dandy Miguel, you get the feeling it’s become a source of frustration (and that’s not just because he and Ocean had a very public feud in 2015).

It makes sense to some extent: the Weeknd’s trilogy of mixtapes were groundbreakingly futuristic and Ocean’s idiosyncratic style has won him widespread critical acclaim. Miguel shares their vocal prowess, but his music lacks the same self-reflection or sense of vulnerability.

This isn’t a bad thing – Miguel’s energetic performances have more in common with Lenny Kravitz or even Prince – and his guitar-led, party-oriented tracks are among his best. But ahead of ‘War & Leisure’, he said in a Billboard interview that his new record was to look at “injustice” and have “political undertones”.

These undertones ultimately amount to little more than a J. Cole guest verse that briefly references Donald Trump (Come Through and Chill) and some modest jabs at corporate America (Now). If anything, Miguel’s music is more likely to be prescribed as an escapist antidote to everyday political trauma.

His attempts to be regarded as a ‘serious artist’ frequently come across as forced and unnecessary. Opening track Criminal sums this up best: on the surface, it’s a lively and colourful pop-rock track with a beguiling lead hook, but it’s somewhat spoiled by Miguel’s insistent assertions that he’s in fact an avant-garde lunatic with “a mind like Columbine”.

It’s not only distasteful, but also plain odd when you consider how inoffensive ‘War & Leisure’ is for the most part. Despite what the title suggests, it’s a relaxed and tempered affair with pleasant vocal melodies and atmospheric production. Miguel sounds particularly at home when he’s bouncing along to the tropical rhythms of Pineapple Skies and Banana Clip, occasionally letting rip with a trademark falsetto shriek.

That’s not to say his palette hasn’t expanded in the two years since his last effort, ‘Wildheart’. Told You So is unashamedly funky to the point of parody, while Caramelo Duro has his him crooning in Spanish over a jangly guitar lick. When he does come across a strong groove he tends to let it run, as exemplified by the stretched out Latin acoustics on Come Through and Chill, but Miguel’s croon means that hardly matters.

The album’s rap guests, such as Rick Rock and Travis Scott, don’t offer much, only serving to remind that Miguel’s vocal talents mean he should be the focal point. But this only makes the album’s ham-fisted detours all the more frustrating.

Despite Miguel’s artistic ambitions, he always sounds better strutting confidently over a funky bassline than he does pontificating over complex social issues (“Pick the fruit of your labour, cultivate, plant your seeds and watch them grow,” on Now must be one of the worst lyrics of the year). ‘War & Leisure’ is a fun addition to his discography for the most part, but it does feel as though Miguel sacrificed his magnetic personality at the altar of illusionary depth.

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