Miguel Chooses His Path (Sort Of) on 'Wildheart': Album Review
Ever since his 2012 breakthrough hit single "Adorn," Miguel Pimentel has faced a contradiction: There's the 21st-century loverman vibe much of his public wants him to incarnate -- a new-generation R. Kelly, without the repellent baggage -- and the more eclectic, left-field artist he justifiably regards as his truer self. He made his loftier aims almost comically clear when he dressed in spiritual-guru white and asked fans to do the same for an invite-only show premiering his new album, Wildheart, in Los Angeles earlier in June. He announced that the record would be about the need to "transcend" social "programming." (It might be worth noting that he's an avowed enthusiast of transcendental meditation.)
Miguel's dualistic, intellect-versus-eros dilemma is far from unique in the lineage of soul and R&B, carrying with it the painful history of the black male body in the dominant American collective imagination. Marvin Gaye and D'Angelo spring to mind as figures who have struggled with it, while Prince stands out as one who for many years navigated that fraught circle with astounding alacrity. Miguel recalls all three men with his switches between blunt address and sinuous falsetto, along with many other voices from the tradition, on Wildheart. In moments, as on lead single "Coffee" and the new "Flesh," he reaches an impressive synthesis. At other times he alternates between exploratory outings and triple-X jams in ways that feel less fully realized.
By removing the more explicit lyrics and the guest rap by Wale for the album version of "Coffee," Miguel emphasizes the utopian, romantic element of the song. On "Flesh," interweaving vocal lines create a nimbus of intimacy reminiscent of the seductive clouds-as-nude-bodies on the album cover, building along the classic Prince pattern to a gospel-inflected erotic climax. It's the most fluid musical evocation of a theme -- love as both sin and redemption -- that runs through many of these songs. Miguel has been dating model-singer Nazanin Mandi for a decade, and throughout this album he wrestles with the conflict between commitment and being 29, famous and "wild at heart."
Yet Wildheart is also a record about Miguel's relationship with Los Angeles -- which puts it in dialogue with Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly -- and with R&B's boundaries, which places it in the shadow of D'Angelo's Black Messiah. It opens with two guitar-driven tracks, the motivational "A Beautiful Exit" and the political, P-Funk-ish "Deal." It never stays groovy for long before returning to such riff-based songs as the slight "Waves" or the confessional "What's Normal Anyway?." The latter, about the existential questions that come from being "too proper for the black kids" but "too black for the Mexicans," feels like a more personal return to the social themes of the Kaleidoscope Dreams closer "Candles in the Sun," but its folk-island acoustic-guitar loop wears it down over time. Repetitive riffing plagues many songs here, relieved but not quite solved by inventive vocal arrangements. (It's not until the closer, "Face the Sun," that guest Lenny Kravitz finally serves up the ham-handed guitar solo the album has been waiting for.)
It all leaves listeners grateful for the cool splash of the synth-and-bass sex-jam moments that come not only on "Coffee" and "Flesh" but also on "Valley," which wakes the album up with spacious production. A tongue-in-cheek tribute to the San Fernando Valley porn industry, the song shows off Miguel's ability to be dirty so earnestly that it feels almost innocent. Ears also prick up for "NWA," a take on the rougher Los Angeles musical heritage.
There's nothing on Wildheart to make one lose faith in Miguel's promise as a major creative and popular force of the decade, but neither is there enough to feel like he has satisfied his warring sides. Instead, it's a case of his sense of space still sharpening, and the hope for his full emergence, repping for a generation that won't accept outdated double binds, yet to come.