Miguel has a rare and specific talent as a vocalist and presence: he has the ability, whether through dynamics or range or sheer intensity, to make whatever he's singing about feel transgressive. He likes to sing about sex, drugs, sin, and the places where the three happen to meet, and he does so in a way that convinces you succumbing to vice is a mind-altering experience. It's a technique he first showed off on 2012's Kaleidoscope Dream, one of the best albums of that year, and he doesn't hesitate to return to the well on Wildheart, his new full-length. Listen to the climax of "FLESH," as he whimpers and moans and begs, "Woman, put me right where I belong" before giving up and howling in falsetto like a wolf at the moon. This is the sound of a man who's decided that if he's going to hell, he might as well have some fun on the way.
Miguel can make whatever he's singing about feel transgressive
The path here wasn't always obvious. Miguel Pimentel was once a pretty straightforward R&B singer, one who looked a little bit like Kobe Bryant on his album cover and wasn't quite sure how to harness his obvious magnetism. He released a debut, 2010's All I Want Is You, that had been sitting completed on a record label hard drive for two years before it slipped onto store shelves. When it spawned a few hits despite minimal promotion — the swooning "Sure Thing," a titular collaboration with J. Cole — it validated Miguel's promise, a promise he managed to fulfill in short order. First came the Art Dealer Chic series, a 2012 set of three free EPs that were gauzy, beguiling, and charged with sexual energy. Summer heat came and turned "Adorn," the song that opened the first of those EPs, into a genuine smash. It would then anchor Kaleidoscope Dream, an album that improved on All I Want Is You in every conceivable way: it was more ambitious, had greater aesthetic breadth, was more lyrically daring. And it turned Miguel into a star, someone standing at the vanguard of rock and R&B and pushing forward with insane charisma.
This means there's a lot riding on Wildheart, an album many people would consider a prime candidate for both critical acclaim and commercial success. Perhaps it's this mix of pressure that led to this hilarious prerelease quote, courtesy of RCA executive Mark Pitts: "He wants people to understand who he is. He's tired of people asking who are you, what's that, do you like girls? He tells me, ‘I want everyone to know I am wild, funny, edgy and love women. I need this album to connect.'" This is an absurd comment — even if part of it came from Miguel itself — and for more than just its "The straight man doth protest too much" anxiety. (See also: not that it's any of my business.) It's also a fundamental misunderstanding of Miguel's appeal, which has nothing to do with his sexuality; if anything, sexual prescriptiveness and limitations feel antithetical to his best art. Wildheart is an album for and about women, so it'll be interpreted as such, but it certainly didn't need to be peppered with ad-libbed shouts of "Woman!" and extraneous pronoun usage. This is the first and most grating of several miscalculations that compromise Wildheart, a good album that's lumpy the way your mattress might be if someone snuck a few marbles underneath it.
Fatalism, desperation, and literal fucking to death
My other objections are more aesthetic than thematic. In its psych-rock leanings, Wildheart is more targeted than anything Miguel has done before: messy, earthy, driven by the power of a decent riff. That sound makes for an intuitive fit with Miguel's subject matter of choice, especially on an album that tends toward the sexual rather than the romantic. It also amplifies the moments where the clouds part, like the vulnerable, ruminative "what's normal anyway." But when a string of melodies fail to connect, that mugginess can quickly feel like you're listening under a smog advisory. (Miguel's LA imagery is all tied up in fatalism, whether through the desperation of "a beautiful exit" and "Hollywood Dreams" or literal fucking to death on the languid Kurupt feature "NWA.") That sensation submarines the album's first third, a handful of songs that are both aimless and tuneless — culminating in "the valley," a lurid and quasi-industrial "Darling Nikki" descendant that crosses the line into cringe-inducing — before they're rescued by proud, percolating lead single "Coffee."
The disconnect between "Coffee" and the songs that come before it illustrates my final major qualm with Wildheart: it turns Miguel's stardom into a singleminded means to an end, puts it in a box with air holes poked in it when it should be given room to breathe. I love "Coffee" for the same reason I love all my favorite Miguel songs: he's unafraid to embrace cliché and pure cheese in the pursuit of something real. It's transgressive in a different way than his dirtiest sex jams: he'll shout from the rooftops, bring a boombox to your door and hold it over his head, read to you from an anniversary card he bought at the grocery store, anything to make you understand how much he cares. This is the guy who sang, "What about matinee movies and pointless secrets? Midnight summer swims, private beaches? Rock, paper, scissors, wait! Best out of three!" in between asking if you like a) drugs, b) hugs, and c) love on one of the best songs of his career.
Wildheart wants to convince you that Miguel's hands are always on the wheel
This line between seeming sincerity and affectation is thin, but it matters. Kaleidoscope Dream could be bold and brash, but it made sure you understood that those qualities only served to paper over insecurity. It understood the value of surrender. Wildheart wants to convince you that, as an artist and a lover, Miguel's hands are always on the wheel. But even when he asks to be put where he belongs on "FLESH," there's no doubt who's issuing the commands.
Wildheart is an ambitious and decisive album, and those are qualities are worth recognizing and encouraging. But I can't shake the feeling that some of its choices serve to build boxes around Miguel's personality and music, when the true thrill of his art comes from making you feel like those barriers can be evaded. The album works hard to slot Miguel into roles and convince you that they suit him: the sex god, the relaxed, trippy dreamer, the Angeleno in touch with the city's dark side. He would be better off neglecting them entirely.