“I don’t want to be loved,” sang Miguel on 2010’s All I Want Is You, “I just want a quickie.” The third single from his debut album, “Quickie,” was the first hint of an interwoven musical-sexual genius we’ve now over four mostly brilliant full-lengths come to know well.
His songs seem to quickly make eye contact with you for some kind of proposition, while other R&B singers beat around the bush, “vibing” and stuff. Sometimes this is crassly literal: “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me/ Yeah you look good and I got money, but I don’t want to waste my time,” went another, more demanding refrain. “Baby, arch your back / And point your toes,” requested another. And oh, a big one: “Tell me that the pussy is mine.”
On 2015’s Wildheart, his confidence level graduated from “I want” to some kind of porno hypnotist capable of undressing a nubile someone on the count of four syllables: “Lips, tits, clit, sit.” He had this way of cutting to the chase without rushing or demanding; these songs are all relatively slow-paced, retaining some sort of impossible boyish charm despite their rude presumptuousness. It doesn’t hurt that the Miguel Pimentel is, of course, a gorgeous man.
Whether he wants to be compared or not, clearly the only analogue here that you can pop out the name “Miguel” for is “Prince.” No one else since the Purple One’s heyday has managed that impish innocence squared with brusque quick cuts of carnality. Miguel even plays guitar.
As his slightly more socially conscious fourth album War & Leisure bows this week with some excellent tunes of its own (the Motown-channeling “Pineapple Skies,” the “Despacito” spot-stealer “Caramelo Duro”), it’s prudent to look back on Miguel’s crowning achievement, though. “Adorn,” his breakthrough hit and opening track to 2012’s classic Kaleidoscope Dream, is his anthem for the ages.
The man’s second album was home to many of the unforgettable invitations mentioned earlier (“Arch and Point,” “Pussy Is Mine,” the somewhat odious “How Many Drinks”) as well as “Do You” (“Do you like drugs?”) and “Use Me” (“I’m gonna give you control”), which are no less arrogant and just as unforgettable as the other highlights. But “Adorn,” its opening salvo, was something else, something more bashful and sweet, even naïve.
Not long over three minutes, “Adorn” catalogues some sweet nothings and awkwardly-shaped promises (“These fists will always protect you?”) over a sandpapery, hotly mixed drum machine and a handful of burbling synth chords. It’s oddly brisk in tempo and yet there’s a comfy amount of room between breaths, space for Miguel to stretch his syllables. The lyric sounds like he’s working his way through it as he goes; it’s an expert pop song with a slight unfinished quality, like a demo that accidentally ended up on the final product. (It may well have been, opening Kaleidoscope Dream and self-produced, where most of the other tunes have co-conspirators.)
As has been oft-noted, “Adorn” shares many of these distinct qualities — particularly that off-the-cuff, almost improvisational lyric approach, and the sonic thumbprint — with Marvin Gaye’s 1982 smash “Sexual Healing.” But “Adorn” is more than just frisky. Sure, it begins with Miguel eager to taste his lips to your skin, which his eyes parallel because they can’t wait to see your grin. But where the Gaye tune remains the late singer’s plea in heat throughout, Miguel’s signature tune becomes more like something he’d spin for you during the aftercare, the cuddles in the morning. “Let my love adorn you,” he wails in various permutations during the chorus, a metaphor that stands out a little because you have to fight to figure it out a tiny bit.
“When a woman hears the word ‘adorn,’ she probably thinks of diamonds and Dior; Miguel’s rich vocals convey the same sense of luxury. That’s a man who knows how to treat a woman,” wrote Erin Thompson in Seattle Weekly at the time. That concept’s a slight lift from a second ‘80s icon, Madonna, when she sang “Dress you up in my love” in 1984. But there is something very adult — maybe even a bit out of reach for consistently cash-strapped millennials — about adorning one’s partner with some upscale gift, in the 2010s. It feels old-fashioned in a way that isn’t even slightly gross, which is hard to pull off.
Then, right, “fists” — what a truly bizarre and calamitous noun to squeeze into this silky, elegant set piece. But it’s part of what makes “Adorn” great, coming off like the first draft that the singer might actually share with a lucky bedmate, an appealing kind of awkwardness. Plus, “fists that protect you” rhymes just peachy with “never neglect you,” and isn’t that sweet? And from there, Miguel’s just kind of riffing, hiccuping and letting his falsetto dip in and out, in dribs and drabs, with another formation of the title in the bridge (“the same way that the stars adorn the skies”) — but mostly just letting the tune work itself out from that point forward.
The tune’s structure is quietly majestic, all stately calm and languid space through the second verse, before it all becomes something really special on the second chorus, where Miguel lets loose with new pauses, impassioned replays of syllables you thought you saw coming from the first round, and a bit of a sweat being worked up. What a performance, understated and heat-seeking at the same time. Even with its minimal backing track, “Adorn” achieves palpable liftoff, with very muted, gospel-like backing vocals humming the finish. It’s a hell of a lot to squeeze into three minutes and 13 seconds, and yet there’s not a ton to it at all. It’s just a simple ditty. How many of those do we get these days?
“Adorn” effectively propelled Kaleidoscope Dream to a number-three debut on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart, while hitting the Top 20 on the Hot 100 on its own, securing a Best R&B Song Grammy and losing Song of the Year to fun.’s “We Are Young.” In Village Voice’s definitive Pazz & Jop critics’ poll for 2012, it placed second in singles, to none other than “Call Me Maybe.” But it’s an understated classic in what’s already shaping up to be a consistent career full of many, and could well be the pinnacle of an R&B renaissance that’s hardly lacking for radical new standards, between Beyoncé, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean — all heavy-hitters Miguel is nonetheless effortlessly sexier than.
He’s also conceptually far less ambitious. But sometimes that’s all it takes; let his love adorn you. Next thing you know: “Le-le-le-let it dress you down.” He’s slick like that.