Miguel's Stellar New Album, Like the Best R&B, Looks Inward For Truth
On “Told You So,” a mid-album track from Miguel’s just-released War & Leisure, the R&B singer offers liberation in the guise of pleasure. “I wanna set you free, just come with me,” he croons over a bed of neon bass. That’s not a foreign sentiment for the artist—above all, his music speaks to how the body finds purpose in proximity to another person—but on an album profoundly informed by today’s dark and unpromising social climate, his plea functions doubly: the personal is always political, and there is freedom to be found in the self.
Miguel has always been something of a restless shapeshifter. His first three albums rendered dueling portraits of the California-born artist, though they all shared a willful embrace for the senses—in his satin-soft falsetto, he sang of unlocking pleasure through taste and touch (from the thrust of “Use Me” and “How Many Drinks?” on Kaleidoscope Dream to the savory mischief of Wildheart’s “Coffee”). Akin to contemporaries Frank Ocean and Solange, Miguel creates ballads from his own life story with the same creative verve and keen romantic interiority, songs that often define the limits of connection. His stories are about the intimate and sometimes sexual spaces that bridge the distance between two people. As a songwriter, he crafts music that bends toward playful carnality, pursuit, and the impulses of human desire.
What he’s been decidedly less clear about, traditionally, are his politics. But on War & Leisure he armors himself against the times—a move born less out of industry manufacture than of self-formulation. “[A]t this point there’s a line that has to be drawn where you stand,” he recently told a journalist. Thematically layered, the album flirts with issues concerning police injustice and immigrant rights, and the toxicity spawned by the rise of Donald Trump. “CEO of the free world now/Should we teach our children hatred?/ Chase the innocent and shoot them down,” the 32-year-old intones on “Now,” the album’s most forward-facing political ballad, before launching into the chorus, “Is that the look of freedom, now?” Miguel’s still a romantic, he’s just radicalized and ready to see the world for what it is: unkind to the powerless. Maybe that’s why the theme of freedom—as a metaphor for escape, for strength, for the pleasure found in another—echoes throughout much of the project. Miguel wants to help realize it for those who don’t yet have it.
We live in a time of personal reckoning, when people must now contend with their position to the issues of the day. Where do you stand? And what are you willing to do to fight for the world you believe in? Years from now, when I think back to 2017, I’ll remember it as a period when we were forced to truly confront who we were, the connections we had with other people, and how many of those bonds fractured under the weight of the continuous unrest. Maybe I’m overstating the year’s import, or misplacing it, maybe it’s because entering my thirties has led me to reconsider many of the old and new relationships I’ve formed, but I can’t help but believe that Miguel’s album speaks to these personal reckonings: with the self; with others, intimately or otherwise; with the larger world.
The current moment has given rise to all manner of public protest movements—Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March on Washington, a Day Without Immigrants—and much of music has followed suit. The year’s best rap albums, from Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. to Vince Staples’s Big Fish Theory, felt more like public statements, to be shared, debated, and listened to collectively. But R&B, especially in the last 12 months, seemed to take a divergent approach, instead looking inward. There was Sampha, whose Process dripped with wounded candor; SZA’s delicious harmonies on CTRL; Kelela, Brent Faiyaz, and Daniel Caesar all opened a window into their lives. The genre’s stalwarts battled personal wars, reflecting on self-doubt and loss and regret and growth, on how one navigates the delicate apertures that exist between people. The wars Miguel struggles with on War & Leisure are public ones, yes, but private too. Because before one can truly take up a cause, they must first answer: What kind of person do I want to be?