Miguel 'Wildheart' Album Review: Junk Mail
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Ryan Book, Yasmin Merchant, Ryan Middleton and Armon Sadler chat about Miguel's new album, Wildheart.
Ryan Book: Before I even put the headphones on, I looked at the cover of Miguel's Wildheart and I saw Prince's LoveSexy. There was bias, of course. Miguel's been compared to the Purple One since day one. I want to pose a challenge to the Junk Mail crew this week and see if we can do what few other publications have managed thus far during Miguel's career: review one of his albums without referencing a certain Minnesota R&B star.
Exception: You may compare the pair's naked bodies from the covers of the aforementioned albums. I vote "Miguel."
Seriously though, where does Miguel fit into the current R&B scene? To quote one of his song titles off Wildheart, what is R&B anyway?
Armon Sadler: I will preface this comment and my following comments by being completely honest: Miguel is one of my favorite R&B artists. I'd been anticipating this album since Kaleidoscope Dream in 2012 and since he dropped "NWA," "Hollywood Dreams" and "coffee" in December on his Soundcloud. That album and those songs managed to hold me over until this album came out because Miguel is just that good to me.
In terms of the current R&B scene, I don't know if Miguel has a "fit" so to speak. To answer your second question, before expanding on my answer to the first, R&B isn't one thing. It's evolved over the years and is continuing to do so. We have pure vocalists and pianists like John Legend, who doesn't come with all the flashy or eccentric music like Miguel does. Not that Miguel doesn't sing well, he obviously does, but his flare also comes from his electric soul music. Then there are artists like Trey Songz, who come with these rap/Hip-Hop like beats and sing over them, which turn out to be hits. There are just so many different artists who go down so many different roads, but I feel it is safe to say Miguel is among some of the best in the R&B scene, despite each artist being unique.
It's very rare you find a track Miguel is featured on that isn't a hit or at least stuck in your head. He's the type of artist you'll kind of forget is there because he drops his own music so infrequently, but when he does reappear with his own material, you can't stop listening. I guess then you don't necessarily forget that he's there, but you're just subconsciously waiting for more. To finally touch on the album, I loved it. I was very satisfied with it and this third album of his will really show how talented he can be on his own, especially given he only had two features. I'll get into more later.
Ryan Middleton: I think asking where Miguel fits into the current R&B scene is almost looking at it the wrong way. Armon hit the nail on the head in identifying that there are the two distinct camps of the pop-r&b artists like Usher, Trey Songz etc whose performance is just as important, if not more so, than the actual product. Whereas someone like John Legend is all about the actual music with his voice and a piano. Miguel sits totally outside of that realm and this album personifies that.
Just looking at the song titles, very few tracks are capitalized like "coffee," "waves" and spaces are left out ("...goingtohell").
Miguel has an uncanny ability to create memorable hooks, yet still have artfully crafted and interesting songs that don't have generic, radio-geared beats. We heard some of this in the lead up to the album with those Soundcloud uploads, but the full album shows the complete vision.
Yasmin Marchant: I think Miguel kind of fits into a new wave of R&B artists like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. What I've always found interesting about his music is that it manages to sound familiar and evoke nostalgia for the older R&B while still sounding fresh and new. It's very artistic yet catchy. I think that's because he incorporates so many different styles into his music like rock and funk. So he may not perfectly fit into one genre, but I believe that's his strength.
RB: Yasmin, you almost got it exactly right.
R&B is a ridiculous and outdated genre term that we continue to use for some reason. The idea was dreamed up as a replacement for the term "race records" in an attempt to make music reporting a tad more politically correct. All it meant at the time was literally "music by black people." And then the industry just continued to apply it to whatever was in style at the time. Ray Charles is one of the most influential "R&B" stars ever, yet one of his biggest records was titled Modern Sounds in Country and Soul. How can we, as an industry, even contemplate comparing Chris Brown and D'Angelo? Or Blood Orange and Beyoncé? Forget it.
I think Frank Ocean is almost too easy of a comparison to make. To truly understand Wildheart, we need to get over the "R&B" label hump. This album is more Kanye West/Drake than The Weeknd. Because, frankly, I don't think Miguel's vocals lives up to Weeknd or John Legend or even Brown. The strength of this album rests entirely on his vision, evident in the experimental and varied directions he takes the production and instrumental aspect of this release. Just like West.
AS: I agree with pretty much the entire last paragraph of Ryan Book's, with the exception of Miguel's vocals not living up to the Weeknd. John Legend, definitely not. But I'd say Miguel and the Weeknd are similar vocalists and I can't really put one above the other. That's all a matter of opinion, though.
I definitely want to harp on his "evolution" as an artist. In 2010, he dropped All I Want Is You, a solid album with notable hits like "All I Want Is You" and "Sure Thing." Then he tapped more into his creative, experimental side with 2012's Kaleidoscope Dreams and had the hits "Adorn" and "How Many Drinks." Now he's dropped Wildheart, with "coffee" standing alone as a notable track for now. We've seen him progressively take more risks as a musician and come up with a more creative sound. These changes have satisfied his fanbase and kept them with him. When Miguel first came out, it would've been easy to compare him to other artists with the content he was putting out. But evidently, he hasn't found difficulty in developing his own unique sound, which I feel certain artists are afraid to do and instead, opt to fit the mold.
With "coffee" in mind, I feel that was a great selection as the single to put out. It's memorable, catchy and a lady charmer. When you really look into the meanings of the lyrics, you see how much of a genius he can be. What do you guys think? Good choice of a single?
RM: "coffee" was a great single because it has the hit value to stand on its own without needing to be supported by the rest of the album and has some radio play. It also hints at the sexual nature of the album, which is an interesting topic in how the singer approaches this album. Some tracks are outright auditory softcore pornos (trademark coming soon) like "The Valley" while others are much more sensual, diving into the feelings and sensibilities of Miguel.
The creative risks he takes with this album, bouncing around between different genres, is really what separates this album for me. The vision to go back and forth between soft, soothing crooners and upbeat, almost indie-rock tracks, is remarkable, but also is a sign of the times where genres boundaries are being tossed aside and styles are mixed and mashed together to create something new.
YM: Auditory softcore porno...don't think I've heard that before. "coffee" is pretty great but my favorite is "what's normal anyway;" I love the rock influence there. I think the lyrics, "I never feel like I belong/I want to feel like I belong somewhere" is talking about him growing up mixed race, but I feel like it could relate to his place in music too.
RB: I typically roll my eyes when people use the term "genius" to describe popular music, but I think Armon's off the hook here. Considering that the subheadline for "coffee" is "(F*cking)," it makes it especially touching to hear him come down from the hot-n-heavy "The Valley" and into this. Maybe I'm a prude but "coffee" just resonates more...maybe it's because I'm all lovey-dovey more often then I have wild sex.
The same logic applies to the later track "Leaves."
AS: I appreciate the reprieve, Ryan.
I feel the same logic can also be applied to "Simple Things." It's very lovey-dovey, which I favor as well. It also doesn't make women feel like they have to meet these high standards to gain Miguel's affection. Not to say he lacks high standards, but he doesn't ask for much. Smoke with him, lay with him, laugh with him. Isn't that really what we all want at the end of the day?
What did you guys feel were the weak points of the album, if any? Would you have liked to see some big name features? Perhaps more/less tracks?
RM: Yeah I like the message of "Simple Things." After several very sexual tracks focused on the flesh (there is even a song titled "FLESH"), he focuses in on what really matters in a woman -- "I just want someone real, I just want someone true."
As for weaknesses with the album. The album is pretty complete as a body of work. I wasn't too keen on "The Valley." I thought it was a little too over the top, which could have been the purpose, but maybe I need to have more of that crazy valley sex. How does the album flow for you guys?
YM: I guess my only complaint is that there weren't enough songs like "Simple Things." I feel like some of the more sexual tracks weren't really sincere and were just trying to be edgy. They seemed really disconnected from songs like "coffee." I'm not going to lie, "FLESH" made me a little uncomfortable; it's too obvious for me.
RB: This complaint is only theoretical, as I don't personally feel it to be true, but it's been said before about Miguel's work: It could be argued that there's too much production on Wildheart. This might contribute to why I get the idea that Miguel isn't as strong as Armon posits...he spends much of the album fighting against the density and layers in some of these tracks.
Of course, if I stick by my argument that the beauty of this album lies in his vision, you can't just ditch the heavy guitars, the psychedelic grooves, the off-kilter rhythms. More often then not, we assume a performer such as Miguel uses vocals as a virtuosic instrument...but that's not the case here. Miguel is playing a Jerry Garcia role more so than an Eric Clapton role...his weapon of choice is just as effective in the mix, versus standing above it.
The "lack" of features is absolutely not a weakness...too many vocalists use them as a crutch these days. Rappers can be forgiven--they need to come up with a lot of words per song--crooners such as Miguel don't need to water their work down.
AS: Makes sense. I see what you're saying.
As for the features, I agree. I just wanted to see if anyone's opinion differed from mine. His two features (Lenny Kravitz and Kurupt) were quality additions to their respective songs and the album as a whole, which is 88% Miguel.
What do you guys envision for the longevity of this album? Platinum? Top of the charts? R&B album of the year nominations? Nothing at all and it just completely tanks?
RM: Regarding the features, for an album as conceptual and diverse as this, it doesn't make sense for Miguel to call upon some star just to help sell copies, though I bet RCA and Sony probably pushed him to do so. It would only make sense if the other artist totally bought into his vision to create an extra verse that would enhance the song.
I am not sure Miguel has the pull yet to have this go platinum. If this album does, it will take a while to do so. I can see this being up for some awards, but being so different and well-done, I think this will stand the test of time artistically.
RB: I definitely agree that this album has staying power. Like with his first album, its release wasn't huge but it was very successful in the long run. Having more high-profile features might help him get more immediate sales, but it would also make him lose some control of his artistic vision which would probably lower the quality. So for now, I see some of the singles getting attention and the album to slowly rise.
RB: I refuse to comment on the steaminess of the album until I can get my hands on the actual LP and play it for my wife. Will update.
How strong will this album be in ten years' time? I have my doubts, and I mean that as no offense to Miguel. None of the singles have cracked the Hot 100 yet and, knowing the American listening audience, none will. That's a testament to his direction and approach. I'll remember this album in ten years and hopefully, the Grammy committee will remember it next year. The gauntlet has definitely been thrown down for Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, the two other crooners I have high hopes for.
AS: I love the album. I feel Miguel has really established himself as more than the guy who does a great chorus for rappers on their songs. He established his own footing in 2010, continued it with Kaleidoscope Dream and Wildheart, and I only see him going up from here. The vision, the production and the content came together really well. Some of the more raunchy songs will appeal to some more than others, but I don't think anyone could use those select few as reasoning to claim this album is any less than great. I'm really looking forward to seeing how fans react. Whether I'm biased or not, I think people will feel similarly to how I do about it.
RM: Miguel had a vision and executed it about as well as he could. Things got a little too steamy and I had to rub off my headphones at times clear things out, notably on "The Valley," but he also toned things back with some more thoughtful love songs. The instrumentals were just as powerful as his voice and lyrics, if not more, which could be a criticism, but also be part of how the LP was engineered. The diversity of sounds and styles is what puts this album at an elite level compared to others that it will inevitably be compared to, though we already discussed why it shouldn't.
YM: I think this is an album that is worth many listens. I think it is a great addition to Miguel's body of work. Though it may not be break into the mainstream charts right away, I believe people will still be listening to it for many years.